SARS Roundup: May 3, 2003

- WHO experts to visit Taiwan
- Beijing says outbreak stabilizing
- Women's soccer championship moved from China
- U.S., Britain given clean bill of health

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SATURDAY, May 3, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- In an unprecedented policy reversal, the Chinese government agreed Saturday to allow World Health Organization experts to travel to Taiwan to study the growing SARS epidemic there.

The decision ended a diplomatic standoff that the island said was hurting its ability to control the sometimes fatal respiratory illness. Since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, Beijing's communist leaders have insisted that Taiwan is a renegade province that falls under their jurisdiction, The New York Times reports.

Beijing said it wanted to help the island, which is struggling with a SARS outbreak that is surpassed only mainland China's. Taiwan officials said Friday that there were 11 more confirmed cases, which brings the total to 100. Taiwan has seen the number of cases triple in the last week.

The World Health Organization said it plans to send a team of epidemiologists to Taiwan next week for medical and humanitarian reasons, the Times reports. "If SARS is a threat anywhere, it is a threat everywhere, so this is a matter of global health security," WHO spokesman Dick Thompson said.

Beijing health officials said Friday that the number of new cases appears to be leveling off in that city. But international health officials said the data about SARS patients in China remained too sketchy to support the claim the outbreak there was starting to run its course, the Times said.

China has had more SARS cases than all the other countries of the world combined -- 3,799 cases and 181 deaths.

Concern about SARS prompted international soccer officials Saturday to decide to move the Women's World Cup, scheduled for Sept. 23 to Oct. 11, from China, the Associated Press reports.

"It will be transferred to another country in view of the current health threat in China, which is greatly affected by the SARS epidemic," FIFA said in a statement. Possible host countries include the United States and Australia; China would host the tournament in 2007, according to the AP.

Meanwhile, the WHO has removed the United States and Britain from the list of countries affected by the SARS virus, the organization said Friday, the AP reports.

"Affected" areas are countries where the virus has spread within local communities in the last 20 days; that's double the incubation period for SARS.

Dr. David Heymann, the WHO's chief of communicable diseases, said that in the United States, all the current SARS cases were imported from other countries and those people have not spread it to anyone else in the local community in the past 20 days, the AP says.

In other developments on the SARS front, researchers in Hong Kong warn that the virus is mutating rapidly. And that could make it much more difficult for scientists to develop a diagnosis and vaccine for the disease, Channel NewsAsia reports.

The Hong Kong researchers say they've found two forms of the virus after doing genetic sequencing on virus samples taken from 11 SARS patients. That indicates the SARS virus is undergoing rapid evolution in infected people in Hong Kong, a researcher said.

"This rapid evolution is like that of a murderer who is trying to change his fingerprints or even his appearance to try to escape detection," Dr. Dennis Lo, a chemical pathologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told Channel NewsAsia.

SARS patients in Hong Kong have been ordered not to hug or kiss anyone for a month after they're released from the hospital, in case they may still be carrying the virus.

The germ has killed at least 436 people worldwide, and sickened more than 6,100.

More information

For more information on SARS, visit the World HealthOrganization or the U.S. Centers forDisease Control and Prevention.

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