SARS Toll Tops 500
By John Ruwitch

BEIJING (Reuters) - The global death toll from SARS has passed 500 after China reported five more deaths from an illness the government is trying desperately to stop spreading out of control in the countryside.
The Health Ministry said 146 more people had been infected, taking the number of cases to 4,698, the bulk of the world's total, while deaths totalled 224
Shanghai, China's commercial capital, reported its first death due to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome on Thursday.
With no sign SARS is being controlled in the world's most populous nation, the government and the World Health Organisation fear the epidemic could spread rapidly through the vast hinterland, where health services are often poor.
The WHO extended its SARS-related travel warning on Thursday to the city of Tianjin and the province of Inner Mongolia as well as to Taipei, capital of Taiwan.
The U.N. health agency had already warned people not to travel to Beijing, the Chinese provinces of Guangdong and Shanxi, and Hong Kong.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has urged preventive measures be taken in areas where "basic rural medical facilities are weak".
Reflecting those concerns, four WHO health experts headed to the province of Hebei on Thursday to assess the ability of healthcare systems there to cope with a SARS outbreak. The WHO said the number of probable cases has risen sharply.
The province wraps around Beijing, which has the world's highest number of SARS cases and is home to a floating population of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, many from Hebei.
The SARS virus surfaced in southern China late last year and has been spread around the world by air travellers. Worldwide, the death toll is 503 and more than 7,400 have been infected.
Reinforcing global concern, an international team of scientists said the death rate from SARS was higher than previously thought and could be as high as 55 percent for people over 60.
They said the rate was about 13 percent in those under that age. There was no evidence the virus had mutated into a deadlier form, despite earlier mortality estimates of 6-10 percent.
Researchers and health officials in Hong Kong and Britain, who examined data from the first nine weeks of the outbreak of the virus in Hong Kong, also found the incubation period -- the time from infection to displaying symptoms -- averaged six days.
Their study was released online by The Lancet medical journal.
China said on Thursday it has punished more than 120 officials in the past month for covering up the extent of the SARS outbreak or failing to prevent the spread of the flu-like virus, the Web site of Xinhua news agency said on Thursday.
Officials in 15 provinces and major cities were sacked, suspended, warned or demoted for deserting their work, delaying reporting or covering up the number of infections and deaths.
In China's countryside, fear of SARS has led to some villages setting up roadblocks to keep away people from Beijing and at least four riots against quarantine centres have been reported in recent days. Thousands have been quarantined in China.
A police official said on Thursday 64 people had been rounded up for rioting in the northern city of Chengde because they suspected a local clinic would be turned into a SARS hospital.
Hong Kong, the worst SARS-hit area outside of China proper, reported four more deaths and seven new cases on Thursday.
"The number of new infections announced today is the lowest since records began," a health official told a news conference.
While SARS appeared to be under control in most places outside China, it has wreaked havoc on economies in the region.
Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said on Wednesday SARS would slow East Asia's economic growth by half to one percent this year. A total of 27 people have died of SARS in Singapore.
U.S. brokerage firm Merrill Lynch cut its ratings for Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific airline and Australia's Qantas Airways, saying share price falls had not yet reflected the full impact.
Taiwan said on Thursday SARS had probably spread into the community and the next five days would be crucial.
The Department of Health reported another 22 probable and suspect cases, taking Taiwan's infections to 360, third highest



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