TAIPEI, Taiwan, April 27 (UPI) — Taiwan Sunday said it would bar visitors from China, Hong Kong, Canada and Singapore to prevent the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome, amid other regional efforts to halt the spread of the flu-like virus that has killed more than 300 people worldwide.

“Fighting the epidemic is like fighting a war,” said Taiwan premier Yu Shyi-kun. “We face an invisible enemy.”

He said Taiwan would no longer issue resident visas to those from China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Canada. The ban includes those with multiple-entry visas. In addition, Taiwanese residents returning from the locations will be quarantined for 10 days.

Taiwan Sunday announced its first death from the virus. A 56-year-old man in Taipei died from the disease. Last week, a SARS outbreak in a Taipei hospital pushed up the number of probable cases from 33 to 55; the number of suspected cases increased from 50 to 72.

The government of Hong Kong, whose residents are affected by the travel ban, criticized the move. In a statement, the government called Taiwan’s move uncalled for and said it was not in the interest of commerce, tourism and other exchanges between Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Twelve more people died from SARS in Hong Kong, bringing the local death toll to 133. The total number of those infected in Hong Kong now stands at 1,543, and there are 24 suspected cases.

But, a Hong Kong health official noted that there had been a slight downturn in the number of SARS cases on the territory.

Margaret Chan, director of health, said Sunday’s 16 new cases was one less than the 17 reported Saturday. Over the last week some 20-30 new cases were reported daily. She warned against complacency, however.

In mainland China, which along with Hong Kong has been the worst hit by the mysterious flu-like virus, another nine deaths were reported, taking the nationwide toll to 131; there are 161 new cases. The Health Ministry said eight of the deaths along with 126 cases were in Beijing.

There are 2,914 cases on the mainland and 1,921 suspected infections. Guangdong province, where the outbreak of the epidemic has been traced, saw three new cases, but no new deaths.

In a bid to stem the flow of the disease, the Chinese government ordered all entertainment venues closed. The order extends to movie theatres and Internet cafes.

The virus, for which there is no known cure, also claimed its 20th victim in Toronto Sunday. Canada has the highest number of SARS cases after Asia.

The head of the World Health Organization, Gro Harlem Brundtland, defended her agency’s efforts to battle the spread of the disease that has affected 20 countries. She defended measures such as advising against travel to Toronto.

“We are doing what is prudent and necessary … before (the disease) becomes global and constant,” she told the British Broadcasting Corp. “If this outbreak reaches poor, undeveloped parts of Africa, we are in trouble.”

In Singapore, the Ministry of Health announced Sunday that as of Tuesday all public hospitals will implement a no-visitor rule for their patients. Of the 198 SARS cases reported so far in the island-state, about 38 percent of them were visitors to hospitals.

The rule will not apply for departments or hospitals treating children or providing obstetric care, where the 1 visitor per patient per day policy will continue.

The policy is flexible, however. Individual hospitals can make case-by-case decisions. The rule will be reviewed at the end of May.

Singapore’s SARS death toll has now reached 21 with an additional death pending further investigation. A total of 131 SARS patients have now been discharged from hospital, while another 47 remain, including 17 in intensive care. There are another 199 probable cases and 111 suspect cases. A total of 2,836 have been placed under home quarantine orders.

In Malaysia, some 280 people, including staff, at a mental hospital for women in Kuching were placed under a 10-day quarantine due to SARS. The move came after what Health Deputy Director-General Datuk Dr Ismail Merican called three “pending (verification) SARS cases.”

In other SARS-related developments Sunday:

*South Korea said it was examining 12 new suspected SARS cases, including a Japanese man.

*The Korea Federation of Small and Medium Businesses said it will continue to suspend the entry of industrial trainees from China and Vietnam because of SARS. The temporary ban may hurt 165 small and medium-sized firms, it said.

*Professor Ron Penny, head of a SARS clinical task force in New South Wales, Australia, said people were adding to the SARS paranoia by wearing face masks. He said people should not exaggerate the problem before the disease hits Australia.

*Taipei’s city government urged its taxi drivers to wear surgical masks as a precaution against SARS. The Taipei City Traffic Department said taxi drivers should open their windows to allow ventilation and said it will provide bleach at taxi stands to help disinfect vehicles.

*In the Indian city of Kolkota, formerly Calcutta, a passenger who arrived on a Bangladesh Biman airlines flight with fever was isolated on suspicion of suffering from SARS. He had visited Hong Kong two weeks ago. The national airline, Air-India, suspended 15 more pilots for refusing to fly to SARS-affected destination. Twenty-seven pilots have been suspended so far for refusing to fly unless they are assured the flight crew has not visited a SARS-hit area in the past 10 days

”’With reporting by Sonia Kolesnikov in Singapore.”’

Copyright 2003 by United Press International. All rights reserved.

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