China shuts schools and sends 17 million pupils home in effort to contain outbreak

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The Independent Online

Beijing closed schools for two weeks and sent 1.7 million pupils home yesterday as the country struggled to contain a Sars outbreak thought to have originated in its south.

CHINA: Beijing closed schools for two weeks and sent 1.7 million pupils home yesterday as the country struggled to contain a Sars outbreak thought to have originated in its south.

Facing accusations that the worldwide spread of the disease was due to Chinese secrecy and slowness to react, the authorities also announced plans to invoke emergency measures to quarantine people exposed to the virus and to restrict access to buildings where there were infections or suspected infections. The official news agency, Xinhua, said the government would take "compulsory measures" against those who refused to co-operate.

China's health ministry disclosed nine new deaths from Sars – seven of them in Beijing – raising the official death toll outside Hong Kong to 106, though many believe the real figure is much higher. Thousands of people in gauze masks thronged the capital's main railway station, seeking to leave the city.

A 17-year-old student from the eastern city of Hangzhou said her boarding school in Beijing closed on Monday and told students to go home. She was waiting with two friends and wore a mask and a foil packet around her neck that said "disinfectant". "We're really afraid to ride this train to go home," said the girl, who would give only her surname, Shi. "We just don't know how dangerous this Sars is."

The authorities also set up thermal imaging equipment to detect fevers among people crossing to and from Hong Kong, where six more people died yesterday, raising the total to 105. The territory's chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, who is under attack for his handling of the crisis, announced a relief package of almost £1bn to offset the economic effects.

A sense of near-panic has gripped China since the media was freed from restrictions on reporting the disease, and fears rose that the annual May Day holidays, when tens of millions of people travel to their home towns, would spread the virus. The authorities first cancelled the holiday, then reinstated five days off, but banned groups going from one province to another.

China has more than half of the world's known cases, but Sars has killed 251 people around the world and infected more than 4,200 more since it first appeared late last year.

SINGAPORE: Another person died, bringing the total to 17, as alarm grew over an outbreak in the city-state's largest vegetable market. The government is using thermal scanners at its airport and at the border with Malaysia, and is threatening to jail people violating its stringent quarantine regulations.

INDIA: Medical staff in the southern city of Pune forced three patients with Sars to move to a public hospital and closed down their private medical centre, isolating themselves inside, because of fears they would catch the disease.

The transferred patients included a bride who was allowed to go ahead with her wedding on Monday, even though she and her mother were sent to hospital with symptoms of the virus. Her brother, who flew home from Indonesia via Singapore, was confirmed as infected before the ceremony. Wedding guests were confined to flats in the city, despite protests from residents.

AUSTRALIA: Authorities announced a fourth suspected case of Sars, although the three previous patients, all members of one family, have recovered. But the country's most populous state, New South Wales, is planning to give local authorities powers to quarantine suspected victims.

PHILIPPINES: An X-ray technician at a Manila hospital being used a quarantine facility was suspected of contracting the virus. Although the country has no confirmed cases, the authorities fear a Filipino nurse may have spread it when she returned from Canada earlier this month and died of pneumonia. Her 74-year-old father died on Tuesday, probably from colon cancer, but he was also considered a suspected Sars case.

JAPAN: The country has managed to keep the virus at bay, but a thermal imaging camera will be installed at Tokyo's Narita airport to identify arriving passengers who have high fevers -- a prime Sars symptom, along with breathing difficulties and coughing.

TAIWAN: Authorities said at least seven workers at a hospital showed symptoms that could be traced to one patient, forcing the management to put the rest of the staff in quarantine and test them for the disease.

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