updated 11/4/2003 7:09:55 PM ET 2003-11-05T00:09:55

Taiwan has almost halved its figures for the number of people infected with the SARS virus and ruled that many previously reported deaths were caused by other factors, the U.N. health agency said Friday.

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The World Health Organization said the change in data from Taiwan meant the global death toll from SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, is now officially 774. In August it had reported a figure of 916.

“Everybody is going back to re-examine what is happening because we have finally got some breathing time,” said WHO spokesman Dick Thompson.

He said there are two tests for SARS, but the more reliable one, which identifies antibodies in the blood, can’t be used until about 20 days after infection so doctors cannot use it to diagnose the illness.

The Taiwanese authorities tested stored samples from patients previously thought to have the disease and found more than 300 that didn’t give a positive result from either test.

Taiwan now officially recognizes 346 SARS cases and 37 deaths, compared with earlier figures, from August, of 665 cases and 180 deaths, according to the WHO Web site. In July, the country reported 671 cases and 84 deaths, the WHO Web site said. WHO doesn’t collect its own data and relies on the figures provided by governments.

Deaths from other causes
Thompson said officials in Taiwan had ruled that even people who apparently did have SARS may have actually died from other underlying diseases. The decision on how to classify them was based on the judgment of doctors.

Officials at the Taiwanese Center of Disease Control said Friday that during the outbreak, many people were listed as SARS patients and quarantined after they developed common SARS symptoms such as fever and lung infections.

But many had developed pneumonia caused by viruses other than SARS, and many of the deaths were elderly people with chronic illnesses who were misdiagnosed, they added.

Thompson said small changes have been made by governments in other countries — the death toll in Hong Kong has been reduced by one to 299 and the United States has reduced its number of cases by four to 29 — but this was by far the largest adjustment.

“We think that each place has certain reasons for doing what they do, and this may help them clarify their response and to identify how they could react faster,” he said.

SARS, which first broke out in southern China in November 2002, infected more than 8,000 people worldwide — mostly in Asia — before it was brought under control in June.

Also Friday, a report on Hong Kong’s response to the SARS outbreak said it had been ill-prepared for the outbreak of such a disease and that bad planning, sloppy communications and problems in hospitals aggravated efforts to contain the ailment.

But it assigned no blame, saying no officials had been negligent, and pointed out that many factors were beyond their control.

Hong Kong never got good information from China’s neighboring Guangdong province after the disease emerged there in November, and there was a lack of knowledge about the new illness and no way at first to diagnose it, the experts said.

The 11 experts on the independent Hong Kong panel, from Britain, the United States, Australia, Hong Kong and China, said they would not use hindsight to make unfair judgments on people who were doing their best.

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