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Hong Kong Mulls Rewards for SARS Reports

May 30, 2003

HONG KONG (AP) _ Officials in Hong Kong said Friday they may offer cash rewards to people who turn in neighbors who spit or litter in an effort to improve hygiene, after government economists predicted the SARS outbreak would cut the territory’s economic growth in half.

Canada’s largest city, Toronto, saw a threefold increase in SARS infections in its latest outbreak, after it redefined what constitutes a case to meet international standards.

But Taiwan _ which has the third highest number of SARS deaths and infections worldwide _ reported its lowest daily increase in cases in three weeks. That appeared to bolster claims by Taiwanese officials that severe acute respiratory syndrome is fading on the island.

The global death toll Friday rose to at least 755, with one new fatality reported in China and another in Hong Kong. More than 8,300 people have been sickened, with the vast majority in Asia, although the region’s crisis appears to be easing.

The World Health Organization removed Singapore from its list of countries affected by the SARS virus, saying it was 20 days _ twice the virus’s maximum incubation period _ since the last locally acquired case was placed in isolation.

``From the start, Singapore’s handling of its SARS outbreak has been exemplary,″ said Dr. David Heymann, Executive Director for Communicable Diseases at WHO. ``This is an inspiring victory that should make all of us optimistic that SARS can be contained everywhere.″

Still, Singapore’s incoming health minister urged vigilance to avoid a Toronto-style relapse.

``I think Toronto’s new outbreak is a great reminder to everyone,″ Khaw Boon Wan told reporters. ``I’m reading reports from Toronto saying that the reason for this new outbreak is that they let their guard down too soon.″

Toronto’s cluster of new cases emerged last week in a harsh blow to a health care system that appeared to have brought an initial SARS outbreak in March and April under control. Health officials have told more than 7,000 people to quarantine themselves because of possible exposure.

Doctors initially reported 11 cases in the renewed outbreak, but that number was tripled Thursday to 33 after Canadian authorities broadened their definition of what constitutes a ``probable case″ to meet international standards. Over the past three months, 169 people have been infected and 29 have died in Canada.

Officials in China also have been accused of failing to adequately respond to SARS when it was first discovered in the southern province of Guangdong, and of attempting to cover it up.

``The Chinese government did not conceal the truth,″ Gao Qiang, the executive deputy health minister, said Friday. He said officials lacked information early on to give a true picture of the scale of the epidemic.

SARS has killed 328 people on China’s mainland and infected more than 5,300. The first known case occurred in Guangdong in November, and as late as January, health officials there denied rumors of an outbreak of a deadly new disease.

China announced Friday it will relax SARS-related travel restrictions and allow limited domestic tourism to resume in June and group tours from overseas to resume in July.

In Taiwan, where SARS has peaked later than in other Asian locations, officials reported only seven new SARS cases on Friday and said no medical workers have caught the virus in the past 10 days in hospitals _ the primary source of past infections.

Officials in Hong Kong, ranked second behind mainland China in the number of cases and deaths worldwide, said they may offer rewards to people who report hygiene violations such as spitting and littering. The territory reported four new infections Friday.

Housing Department spokeswoman Esme Lau said it was unclear how much would be paid for tip-offs, because the idea is still in the conceptual stage.

Critics fear such a system could lead to bad blood among neighbors.

The government announced Friday that the SARS crisis is expected to cut Hong Kong’s economic growth in half this year, to 1.5 percent.

Consumer spending has collapsed and other industries ranging from airlines to hotels and restaurants have been devastated, the government said.

Senior U.S. and Asian officials have drafted guidelines to revive business and tourism in SARS-affected countries ahead of a meeting of their trade ministers in Thailand next week, a U.S. delegate said Friday.

The plan focuses on improving SARS screening and prevention while restoring tourist and business confidence, said C. Lawrence Greenwood, U.S. ambassador to the 21-member Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, or APEC.

The plan is expected to be endorsed by the trade ministers in the northeastern Thai town of Khon Kaen June 2-3.

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