BEIJING – Under escalating global pressure, China agreed Wednesday to let international health investigators visit the place where the mystery illness apparently began -- the southern province of Guangdong.
The four-member World Health Organization team arrived in Guangdong on Thursday and said they would confer with local authorities to work a plan of whom to meet. They did not wear protective masks.
"We are going to start immediately," said team member James H. Maguire, an epidemiologist from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Officials also updated China's death toll by a dozen to 46 as they revealed the illness had spread to other regions and sickened far more than they initially reported.
China's move comes after days of criticism over its secretiveness about the disease. Worldwide, at least 78 people have died and more than 2,200 are believed to be sick with severe acute respiratory syndrome, SARS, the World Health Organization said.
There is no medicine to treat the illness, and scientists still have not confirmed which virus causes it. The WHO health investigators believe Guangdong offers valuable clues to the disease.
As China agreed to more openness, the Geneva-based WHO advised travelers not to go to Hong Kong and Guangdong -- the first time the agency has issued such an advisory in at least a decade. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention already recommended postponing nonessential trips to mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Hanoi, Vietnam.
For months after the disease began sickening people in Guangdong in November, China kept the details quiet. On March 16, as the WHO was issuing a global health alert, the China Ministry of Health reported "the epidemic situation has been controlled and the patients are being cured one by one."
Initially, the government reported only five deaths and 305 cases. On Wednesday, the number of reported Chinese cases swelled to 1,190.
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said Tuesday that "more pressure" would be applied on China and he hoped to talk with China's health minister soon.
The same day, The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial under the headline, "Quarantine China," and suggested other nations simply should suspend all travel links with China until it provides the truth about its public health.
For weeks, U.N. agency officials have delicately appealed for more cooperation from China, which has a tradition of hiding bad news, even as China's neighbors have complained loudly.
"Because the mainland is not sharing information ... the outbreak has been lengthened," Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council said in a recent report.
At the Centers for Disease Control in the United States, director Dr. Julie Gerberding said those trying to control SARS want to find out if it's still being spread in China. Health investigators also want to know what those who die from the illness might have in common, she said.
Of the 12 newly disclosed deaths, nine were in Guangdong and the others were in the Guangxi region to its west. WHO officials said the newly reported cases were from February and March, suggesting they did not necessarily signify the outbreak was worsening.
Still, worries grew worldwide as travel advisories sprouted, quarantines were enforced as far away as Singapore and Canada, and cultural practices involving human contact were reviewed. More companies were canceling events, which could take a toll on China's economy.
Sixteen deaths from SARS have been reported in Hong Kong, six in Canada, four each in Vietnam and Singapore and two in Thailand.
Even as they revealed that their outbreak had widened, Chinese officials insisted it was under control -- a theme that journalists for the mainland's state-controlled domestic media say they are under orders to promote.
"Since the beginning of March, this disease has been brought under control," Health Minister Zhang Wenkang said in an interview on state television.
He said 80 percent of those diagnosed with SARS have recovered.
Intel Corp., the world's biggest computer chipmaker, said it is backing out of important trade shows in China and Taiwan because of SARS. Computer firm Sun Microsystems also announced it was canceling a convention this month in Shanghai due to SARS-related travel advisories.
In Thailand on Wednesday, the government said it would turn back foreigners suspected of having SARS and would force those allowed in from affected countries to wear masks in public.
In the Philippines, which has no confirmed cases, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo put in place a contingency plan -- including air and seaport checks -- to prevent an outbreak. She said the problem would be treated on the magnitude of the Iraq war.
Health officials in New Zealand urged indigenous Maori tribesmen to forgo their traditional "hongi" nose-rubbing greeting for visiting Chinese at a convention. In Hong Kong, the Roman Catholic Church ordered priests to wear masks during Communion and put wafers in the hands of the faithful rather than directly on the tongue.