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Fired mayor accused of mishandling SARS



Published: Mon, April 21, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



China called off May Day vacations to help stem the spread of the virus.

BEIJING (AP) -- The mayor of Beijing was fired after the disclosure of a tenfold increase in SARS cases in China's capital and charges he mishandled the outbreak of the deadly illness, the state-run press said today.

The dismissal of Mayor Meng Xuenong came shortly after he and China's health minister were removed from key Communist Party posts, and the Health Ministry announced that the number of cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome in Beijing had jumped from 37 to 339.

A Beijing city government spokesman, Liu Wei, declined to confirm the firing of the mayor, who was appointed three months ago.

But detailed accounts in state-run newspapers said senior party officials accused Meng of failing to gather information on SARS, track new infections and trace people who might have been exposed to the mysterious ailment.

Disease's toll

The flulike SARS has sickened more than 3,800 people and killed at least 211 others around the world, according to health officials in the affected countries. The illness has killed at least 94 people and infected more than 1,400 in Hong Kong, while mainland China has reported 79 deaths and more than 1,800 people infected nationwide. Singapore and Canada have also been hard hit by the virus.

Governments in Asia are adopting increasingly drastic efforts to stem the spread of SARS.

China called off its weeklong May Day vacation in hopes of stopping tens of millions of people from traveling and spreading the virus.

Singapore announced that all 2,400 employees of a vegetable market are under quarantine after a co-worker fell ill.

Quarantine hailed

Meanwhile, Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa said efforts to contain the spread of SARS by quarantining households of victims and tracking down potential contacts are paying off.

An additional 150 suspected SARS cases have been identified through stepped-up measures to find people exposed to the disease. Those people have been able to get early treatment -- which Hong Kong doctors fighting SARS say is crucial.

"The figures are stabilized," Tung told reporters. "I think we are making good progress."

Some Hong Kong students prepared to go back to class on Tuesday -- wearing surgical masks to reduce the risk of spreading SARS -- but about 10 schools refused to reopen after being closed last month as a precaution.

In Canada

Canada reported its 14th death from SARS as a major Toronto hospital closed its critical care and other units after staff members began to show symptoms.

Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, which has Canada's largest trauma unit, closed its critical care, cardiovascular intensive care and SARS units Saturday. Officials think staff members were exposed to the virus a week ago while treating a patient.

The closing will place a "huge burden" on Toronto's health-care system, said the hospital's president and chief executive, Leo Steven.

The gambling enclave of Macau, on China's southern coast, reported its first suspected case. The victim, a 38-year-old saleswoman, was placed in quarantine after showing symptoms that include cough and fever, officials said.

China's dismissal of the Beijing mayor and its new sense of urgency about SARS comes after weeks of criticism at home and abroad of its slow response to pleas for information and cooperation in fighting the disease.

Meng was replaced "to improve the Beijing region's handling of SARS prevention work and ensure overall stability in the capital," the newspaper Beijing Youth Daily quoted He Guoqiang, chief of the party organization department, as saying.

Meng was dismissed Sunday as deputy party chief for Beijing -- a more important post than mayor.

Also Sunday, Health Minister Zhang Wenkang was dismissed as head of the party health committee -- a key policymaking body on medicine and public health. Zhang's ministry refused Monday to say whether he also was dismissed as minister.

Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.




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