For the first time, Chinese government officials revealed Wednesday that nearly three dozen people have died and almost 800 became ill in a mysterious outbreak that Western medical investigators confirm was the beginning spread of a new flu-like disease.
The new numbers raised the worldwide death total from severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, to 51, with 1,325 cases since mid-November.
Until now, Chinese authorities said only five people had died from a pneumonia-like illness that struck southern Guangdong province. The new count of 34 includes three deaths in Beijing.
"Everything we've seen so far indicates it's the same disease," said Dr. Meirion Evans, member of a WHO team that has studied the cases in southern China.
"We're getting a more complete picture. It's certainly been one of the objectives of the mission to clarify whether the outbreak in China was the same disease as what's been seen outside of China."
For weeks, Chinese officials said only 305 people were sickened in an outbreak that started in November.
But a spokeswoman for the Guangzhou city government, who identified herself only by the surname Ye, said Wednesday that 792 cases of atypical pneumonia were reported in the province by the end of February, putting the worldwide case number at more than 1,300.
Health authorities in Hong Kong have said the disease spread when a sick Beijing professor stayed at the Metropole Hotel in late February, infecting six other guests, who then carried it to Singapore, Vietnam and Canada.
World Health Organization scientists say the disease spreads when victims cough or sneeze in close contact with others. Most SARS victims have been family members of those who have the disease or health workers treating them.
But the spread among strangers in the Hong Kong hotel and among nine tourists on a March 15 China Air flight from Hong Kong to Beijing has heightened fears.
Numerous schools in Hong Kong and Singapore have closed and hospitals are straining to treat their own doctors and nurses. Hong Kong media reports say about 60 schools are closed, although government officials have not confirmed that. Singapore's school closings, from day-care centers to junior colleges, will keep a half-million students temporarily out of class.
"On purely medical grounds, there are currently no strong reasons for closing all schools," said Teo Chee Hean, Singapore's education minister.
But he said parents are fearful.
Singapore also has imposed a 10-week quarantine on 740 people exposed to the disease. The U.S. State Department is urging against travel to Vietnam. Officials in the Philippines urged travelers from countries hit by the disease to stay home for a week. Tens of thousands of Filipinos work in Hong Kong and Singapore, many as domestic helpers.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa held urgent talks the Cabinet late Wednesday and officials said they were considering a quarantine for anyone who had close contact with victims.
In Ontario, Canada — where three have died from the illness and 18 others are believed to have it — the government declared a health emergency to give itself additional powers to control its spread.
WHO officials say signs continue pointing to a virus causing the common cold as the most likely bug behind the illness. Labs for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Hong Kong University said they had found the coronavirus in specimens from SARS patients. The coronavirus can be blamed for about 10 percent to 20 percent of common colds.
On Wednesday, virus experts at the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in Hamburg, Germany, backed up that evidence with their own research.