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China reports 4 new suspected SARS cases

BEIJING -- Evoking memories of last year's outbreak, China announced yesterday it was investigating four new suspected SARS cases in its capital and ordered an affected southern province to gird for a holiday when millions of Chinese will be traveling.

All of the new suspected cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome have been traced to a single patient, the government said, suggesting the problem was still tightly confined, not a general outbreak.

Nevertheless, the announcement issued by the Ministry of Health on its website, was an alarming reminder that the disease that killed 349 people in China during last year's outbreak still poses a threat despite efforts by the government to prevent its return.

The latest four cases brought the total in China for the past week to two confirmed and six suspected. The new suspected cases are the father, mother, aunt, and roommate of a 20-year-old confirmed SARS patient in Beijing with the surname of Li, the ministry said. The other confirmed case is a 26-year-old medical student with the surname of Song in the southern province of Anhui.

''According to the information we've gotten from the government, the transmission we've seen so far has been happening with . . . people who have been in close contact with people who probably have SARS," Beijing-based World Health Organization spokesman Bob Dietz said yesterday.

''When we start to see `effective transmission' -- spread through the general public through normal contact, not intense personal contact -- that's when we feel we've reached another stage," Dietz said. ''We haven't reached that stage."

SARS first emerged in southern China's Guangdong Province in November 2002. It triggered a global health crisis, killing 774 people around the world and infecting more than 8,000.

The coming May Day holiday is a time when millions of Chinese travel within their borders on vacation. Many stream to Huangshan, a popular scenic mountain resort in Anhui, the province where one confirmed SARS case and one suspected death from the disease were reported Friday.

Tourism offices were ordered to stay open around the clock.

Beijing, China's capital, also reported one confirmed and one suspected case last week.

As it cautioned against panic, WHO agreed to dispatch a team of specialists to help identify possible links between a SARS research lab in Beijing and the cases being investigated last week.

Two lab workers became sick at the research lab, WHO said. And in what could be the world's first SARS death this year, Song's mother died last week in Anhui.

Song worked at the lab -- the virus control institute at China's Centers for Disease Control -- and is believed to have infected her mother after returning to Anhui.

Song was confirmed to have SARS and was treated last month at a Beijing hospital, where she came into contact with Li, the 20-year-old nurse who is also now a confirmed SARS case, the ministry said. A 31-year-old Beijing man who worked at the lab has been listed as a suspected case.

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