GUANGZHOU, China – A team of international scientists in southern China hunted for clues Friday into the origins of a fatal flu-like illness, while U.S. officials said some embassy workers could return to the states.
The World Health Organization specialists planned to spend the coming days in Guangdong province talking to doctors, visiting hospitals and going to the town where the first case of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, surfaced in November.
After the team arrived Thursday, provincial officials gave them information indicating that new cases were diminishing in the hard-hit region, team spokesman Chris Powell said.
"This is a virological mystery that needs to be solved," Powell said Thursday. "There are still new cases -- which is very sad -- but the number of cases from what we've seen is going down."
The team met Friday with officials of the provincial Center for Disease Control and Prevention. They wouldn't immediately comment to the pack of some 40 foreign reporters who followed their beige minivan in a convoy of cabs, vans and sport utility vehicles.
On Thursday, provincial officials gave the team "very detailed information" about people in Guangdong with SARS, how they got sick and their treatment, Powell said. The team plans to stay in Guangzhou through Tuesday.
The State Department, meanwhile, 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.
Consulates affected -- in Chengdu, Shanghai, Shenyang, Guangzhou and Hong Kong -- will remain open.
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.
Overnight, officials in Canada confirmed the country's seventh death from SARS, a 57-year-old woman who also had other health problems.
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," the spokesman 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.
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.
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 while 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."