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SARS Forces China to Ban Tibetan Tourists

May 2, 2003

BEIJING (AP) _ China banned foreign tourists from visiting Tibet and placed new travel restrictions on Beijing’s university students Friday as the nation’s leader tried to rouse the public into waging a ``people’s war″ to stop SARS from spreading.

The new precautions were announced despite a rare bit of good news: Officials said the surge of SARS cases in Beijing appears to have leveled off and that the Chinese capital might start seeing a decline in the next 10 days or so.

Beijing official Liang Wannian told reporters that high case numbers ``will continue for some time.″ But the situation ``is stable and the upward trend has been effectively checked,″ said Liang, deputy director-general of the city’s health bureau.

At least 91 people have died in Beijing and more than 1,600 are infected with the flu-like virus, called severe acute respiratory syndrome. Increases of more than 100 cases are reported almost daily. Throughout China, at least 181 have died and 3,799 have fallen ill.

Worldwide, the disease has claimed 391 lives, and more than 5,800 have been infected. In the United States, where no one has died and there are 54 cases, an Associated Press survey found that almost half of Americans think their country will face an epidemic similar to Asia’s.

The United States and Britain were removed from the World Health Organization’s list of ``affected countries″ Thursday because they have not had any local transmissions for 20 days.

And Hong Kong, Singapore and Toronto are ``having a downslope in cases,″ said Dr. David Heymann, WHO’s communicable diseases chief. ``We believe those countries are adequately now protecting their health workers and others so that the disease is now being rapidly controlled.

``The big question, of course, still remains in China,″ he said Friday.

Chinese officials have said it would be catastrophic if SARS spread to China’s vast countryside, where much of the population lives in poverty and lacks access to proper healthcare. Most rural hospitals wouldn’t be able to handle a SARS outbreak, officials have said.

To stem the spread of SARS to the provinces, officials have been discouraging people from traveling. The government has also shortened the weeklong May Day holiday, a time when millions of Chinese go on tours.

On Friday, the State Tourism Administration announced that foreign tourists wouldn’t be allowed to visit the Himalayan territory of Tibet, which hasn’t reported any SARS cases, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. The administration said that travelers would be banned from going to other western regions as well, the agency said.

Groups already in China were told to drop plans to go to those areas, Xinhua said. It did not say whether foreigners in Tibet would have to leave immediately.

The government also imposed new travel restrictions on Beijing university students. The rules require health checks for any who want to leave Beijing, and students are barred from rural and SARS-affected areas, Cai Fuchao, a member the city’s party committee, told reporters.

``We are trying to convince the local citizens to cut the amount of their outbound travel,″ Cai said.

Cai acknowledged that some students had fled the capital, but said there were only 39 SARS cases among Beijing’s 670,000 university students.

Beijing has shut down its public schools and has ordered entertainment sites to close. The city also built a 1,000-bed SARS isolation hospital on Beijing’s outskirts.

The new restrictions came as President Hu Jintao called for the public to join in a ``people’s war″ against SARS. The phrase echoes the guerrilla strategy declared by communist founder Mao Zedong before the 1949 revolution.

``The masses should be mobilized ... to wage a people’s war against the epidemic,″ the Xinhua quoted Hu as saying.


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