BEIJING – Nine people died of severe acute respiratory syndrome in March in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, the provincial government said Wednesday as authorities in Beijing granted the World Health Organization permission to visit the region.
The report from the province where the disease is believed to have originated brings the total number of acknowledged deaths from the worldwide death toll to at least 75.
The news also came as Canadian health authorities reported its fifth and sixth deaths from the illness, also known as SARS, and Hong Kong officials placed 240 people in quarantine camps in an effort to stem its spread.
In Beijing, WHO spokesman Chris Powell said China's central government had invited an investigative team to visit Guangdong. He said the team was waiting for a follow-up invitation in writing.
"We've thus far had a verbal invitation to go," Powell said. "The team are delighted that they're going to be able to go to Guangdong. It'll give them a tremendous opportunity to look at what appears to be the source of the outbreak firsthand."
Qi Qingdong, head of the Ministry of Health's Division of International Cooperation, confirmed Wednesday that approval for the team's visit had been granted.
The permission came as international criticism of China's reaction to SARS grew -- and as China released more information on the disease's path in the south last month.
In a statement faxed to news organizations, the Guangdong provincial government said it had 361 new cases in March of the illness known as SARS. The statement said 507 people who had contracted the illness earlier were released from hospitals last month.
The report gave the first new figures for deaths from SARS in Guangdong since the provincial government disclosed last week that 31 people had died there through the end of February.
Three deaths also have been reported in Beijing, and the Shanghai Health Department scheduled a briefing for Wednesday afternoon.
In addition to the deaths in mainland China, there have been 16 in Hong Kong, six in Canada, four each in Vietnam and Singapore, and two in Thailand.
On Tuesday, the U.S. State Department authorized the departure of nonessential employees and family members from Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, as a precautionary measure.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson said more pressure would be applied on China, where the disease first unfolded but was kept quiet for months.
"It's important to see if we can work in more of a collaborative fashion with China," said Thompson, who was touring a new emergency operations center of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "I think we're going to put on more pressure."
A spokesman for the Chinese Health Ministry confirmed that it had received a request for Health Minister Zhang Wenkang to talk by phone with Thompson. The spokesman, who would give only his surname, Wu, said U.S. officials asked for the call to take place at 7 a.m. EDT Wednesday.
However, he said the Health Ministry didn't know yet whether Zhang could take part because he is "very busy."
In Canada, the new deaths were reported the same day that Canada's health minister acknowledged that little is known about SARS but said proper steps have been taken to confine it.
All the deaths in Canada have occurred in Toronto, where the majority of the nation's 151 probable or suspected cases so far have occurred. The total announced by the federal health department included 22 more than the previous day. The illness was brought to Canada by air travelers from Asia.
Hong Kong health officers, meanwhile, invoked a colonial-era law and place 240 residents of an apartment complex into quarantine camps.
Dr. Leung Pak-yin, Hong Kong's deputy director of health, said one quarantine center was in the suburban New Territories and the other was on Hong Kong island. A 33-story apartment bloc in the Amoy Gardens complex already was sealed off to contain the illness. The camps are usually used by vacationers.