FOSHAN, China – China apologized Friday for not doing a better job of informing people about severe acute respiratory syndrome as an international medical team went to the city where it believed the mystery illness may have first broken out.
The admission, extraordinary for a government that rarely acknowledges fault, came after escalating criticism abroad — and one day after the health minister explicitly said China had followed its own rules in dealing with the problem.
"Today, we apologize to everyone," said Li Liming, director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control.
"Our medical departments and our mass media suffered poor coordination. We weren't able to muster our forces in helping to provide everyone with scientific publicity and allowing the masses to get hold of this sort of knowledge."
In Foshan, a city in China's southern Guangdong province, World Health Organization investigators worked with local authorities to isolate data from a few people believed key to the emergence of SARS.
At the top of their list: a Foshan man believed by investigators to be the first known person infected. The man, who was not identified, is suspected of having passed the virus to four people — but, mysteriously, not to his four children. He survived and was released from the hospital in January.
"It's going to be a tricky task to find out what went on," said Powell, a spokesman for the WHO team, who said investigators had not met the man. "It's going to be a long job, a long epidemiological study to try to find out exactly how the infection was transmitted."
SARS has killed at least 81 people in Asia and Canada — 46 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. Forty of those deaths happened in Guangdong province.
No cure has been found, although health officials say most sufferers recover with timely hospital care. Symptoms include high fever, aches, dry cough and shortness of breath.
The WHO team met Friday with officials of the provincial Center for Disease Control and Prevention, who have given them information about SARS patients in Guangdong, including how they got sick and their treatment. The team plans to stay through Tuesday in the provincial capital, Guangzhou.
Increasingly, investigators are looking at Guangdong as the place where SARS began — something China's health minister, Zhang Wenkang, insists is premature and possibly inaccurate. Twenty-four cases, including some of the earliest, have been traced to Foshan, though five of them show no actual "trace of transmission" to others.
"So this is a real mystery, and it's something they're going to try to have to solve," Powell said.
WHO says aggressive pamphleteering helped stem the disease in Foshan, a bustling city brimming with traffic and modern buildings. It has reported no new cases, and few here were wearing masks Friday.
"People die from other infectious diseases, so what's the difference with this one. If you can prevent it, prevent it. If not, what's the point of being scared?" said Liang Lan, a shop owner in Foshan. "We need to keep living our lives."
The WHO team, which arrived Thursday from Beijing, received government data indicating that numbers of new SARS cases were diminishing in Guangdong, which has reported 40 deaths, Powell said.
Overnight, officials in Canada confirmed the country's seventh death from SARS, a 57-year-old woman who also had other health problems.
On Thursday, Singapore said a 78-year-old woman had died, raising the island nation's death toll to five. A 56-year-old man died in Hong Kong, bringing its toll to 17.
Health officials raised concerns of a new outbreak at Hong Kong's United Christian Hospital, where at least 10 health workers have been infected.
In Washington, the State Department authorized the departure of nonessential personnel and family members from its embassy in Beijing and from five consular offices in China because of concerns about SARS.
The State Department noted that commercial airlines and most air ambulance services in China will not transport SARS patients. Consulates affected — in Chengdu, Shanghai, Shenyang, Guangzhou and Hong Kong — will remain open.
The WHO team in Guangdong comprises four doctors from the United States, Wales, Germany and Bangladesh.
The Chinese moves toward openness come after foreign criticism of the communist government's reluctance to release information about SARS. Li's apology came at a news conference to which foreign news organizations were not invited.
On Thursday in Beijing, Zhang, the health minister, insisted it is "safe to live in China." He implored people who canceled travel to China to reconsider — contradicting a WHO advisory to avoid Guangdong.
Some in southern China, though, were unhappy with the government's tight hold on information about SARS.
"They should have told us how to prevent it," said Chen Mao, a 67-year-old retiree in Guangzhou who has been taking medicine he hopes will ward it off. "You must observe prevention — eat healthy, keep exercising. Don't be scared — there's no point."