GUANGZHOU, China – A team of international scientists landed Thursday in this city just west of Hong Kong and set to work hunting clues to the origins of a fatal flu-like illness as the worldwide death toll rose.
Officials in Guangdong province on China's southern coast gave the World Health Organization team figures indicating that fewer people in the hard-hit region are getting sick from severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, said Chris Powell, a spokesman for the team.
The investigators, who expect to stay in the provincial capital of Guangzhou until Tuesday, planned to talk to doctors and visit hospitals and the nearby town where the first case of SARS was reported in November.
"This is a virological mystery that needs to be solved," Powell said. "There are still new cases — which is very sad — but the number of cases from what we've seen is going down."
The investigators were closeted all afternoon with provincial health officials, who provided a battery of data, including "very detailed information" about people in Guangdong who got SARS, how they got sick and what kind of treatment they received, Powell said.
The Chinese moves toward openness come after foreign criticism of the communist government's reluctance to release information about SARS.
The illness has killed at least 80 people in Asia and Canada — 46 of them in mainland China — and sickened at least 2,200 in more than a dozen nations as infected travelers board planes and reach other continents in hours.
In the United States, there were 100 suspected cases in 28 states. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said they now have a test to better diagnose the disease.
Health authorities in Toronto said Thursday they believed a seventh person had died from SARS, but they had not confirmed the cause of death. A cancer research conference expected to draw 15,000 to Canada's largest city was canceled for fear oncologists might spread SARS to their already weakened cancer patients.
In Singapore, health authorities said a 78-year-old woman had died, raising the island nation's death toll from SARS to five. A 56-year-old man died in Hong Kong, bringing its toll to 17.
WHO reported a new case in Vietnam, which believed it had the disease under control. Hong Kong, which has become something of a masked city, extended an emergency school closure to April 22.
In Guangzhou, the WHO team planned to meet Friday with local disease-control officials, Powell said. The team is made up of doctors who work in the United States, Wales, Germany and Bangladesh.
"There are many, many steps before you figure out where a disease started," he said. "What's important now is we have a flow of information."
Powell said the numbers given by Guangdong health authorities seemed sound — a delicate issue given the increasing international criticism that China's response to SARS has been sluggish.
"The WHO is not a police force. We can't bang the table and say: `Do this, do that,"' he said. But he added that WHO has "no reason to doubt the figures that are conveyed to us."
State newspapers moved to assure the Chinese public the government had the situation under control, running front-page articles Thursday on a Cabinet meeting led by Premier Wen Jiabao that reviewed efforts to combat the outbreak. The same newspapers until now carried minimal coverage of the disease.
"The epidemic has been brought under control," said a dispatch by the official Xinhua News Agency that appeared in the mass-market Beijing Daily, the Communist Party's People's Daily and other newspapers.
At a news conference in Beijing, Health Minister Zhang Wenkang insisted it was "safe to live in China." He implored people who canceled travel to China to reconsider — contradicting a WHO advisory to avoid Guangdong.
"I say to you here, as minister of public health, that the epidemic of atypical pneumonia has been put under effective control," Zhang said.
No cure has been found, though health officials say most sufferers recover with timely hospital care. Symptoms include high fever, aches, dry cough and shortness of breath.
Amid assurances the disease was abating, the streets of Guangzhou were bustling on a humid Thursday afternoon. Mom-and-pop shops were doing brisk business, public parks and malls were filled and traffic was moving slowly. Only a handful of people were wearing masks.
At the height of the scare in early February, many residents did not leave their homes unless it was necessary, and rice, salt and oil were hot items in stores, said Yang Yongmo, a taxi driver who takes a daily dose of Chinese medicine "to be safe."
Now, "everything is normal," he said. "There's nothing to be scared of. It's harder to get sick than you think."