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China confirms two more SARS cases

China confirmed two more cases of SARS on Saturday, the country’s busiest weekend for travel before the start of the Lunar New Year.
A masked Chinese man strolls on the streets of Beijing, China, on Friday. AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

China confirmed two more cases of SARS on Saturday, the country’s most hectic travel weekend before the start of the Lunar New Year. The World Health Organization urged further testing to ensure the diagnosis was correct.

Previously identified as suspected patients, the new cases were a 35-year-old businessman and a 20-year-old waitress, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. The waitress had worked at a restaurant in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou that served civet cat, a regional delicacy and a suspected source of the disease.

The total number of severe acute respiratory syndrome this year now stands at three. The season’s first confirmed case, a 32-year-old television producer, was released from the hospital last week after recovering from what health officials said may be a milder strain of the virus.

The government of the southern province Guangdong, where the disease emerged last year, said in a statement that SARS experts confirmed the two new diagnoses.

“They concluded that the clinical symptoms and results of laboratory tests and X-ray tests were in line with a diagnosis standard recommended by the Health Ministry for SARS,” the statement said.

WHO: Confirmations premature
But Roy Wadia, a WHO spokesman in Beijing, said the agency thought the confirmations were premature.

In the case of the businessman, blood samples were taken from him three days apart instead of at least seven — a timeframe that would be long enough to measure a significant rise in antibodies for any disease, Wadia said.

“At this time it’s difficult to tell what their antibodies are responding to. It could be the SARS coronavirus or a type of common cold virus,” he said. “We encourage a little more testing to be done to be 100 percent sure of the outcome.”

Busy travel season in China
Saturday’s announcement came during China’s busiest travel season, when millions crisscross the country in planes, trains and buses to return to their hometowns for the Lunar New Year, the country’s biggest holiday, which starts Jan. 22.

A spokesman for the Health Ministry urged continued diligence in preventative work by health authorities at all levels, especially during this period.

“No effort should be spared in guarding against the spread of the disease,” the spokesman said in a statement. “We mustn’t be caught off guard or relax our vigilance.”

The first case of severe acute respiratory syndrome came to light in November 2002; the disease killed 774 people and sickened more than 8,000 globally before subsiding in June.

Both WHO and Chinese experts have said that the three latest cases have been milder, with patients having fevers for shorter periods and, unlike many people stricken earlier, not needing respirators to breathe.

The waitress, who was identified by her surname, Zhang, was discharged from the hospital Saturday morning, and 100 people who had contact with her were released from quarantine and medical observation, the Guangdong government statement said.

The businessman, whose last name was given as Yang, was in stable condition with no fever, one of the major symptoms of the disease. He will remain in isolation and continue to be treated, the statement said.

According to Xinhua, 22 of the 28 people who had come in contact with him were no longer under observation.

Another link with civet cats
A WHO team returning from Guangzhou on Friday said they found that civet cats with the SARS virus were in the restaurant where the waitress worked — more evidence that the weasel-like mammals are the source of the disease.

Team leader Dr. Robert Breiman also said that experts found the virus on a large number of cages at two live-animal markets.

The WHO has stressed that it still doesn’t know what role the civet cats play in spreading the SARS virus, but almost 4,000 civets and hundreds of other exotic animals have been slaughtered throughout Guangdong as a preventative measure.