BEIJING – A prominent Chinese doctor charged Wednesday that the mainland government covered up details of the spread of SARS in Beijing, and an American man with the disease was declared dead in Hong Kong after being driven across the border in an ambulance.
Other parts of Asia nervously invoked extra precautions to contain severe acute respiratory syndrome, which has infected around 2,700 people globally and killed at least 106.
The accusations of a government cover-up from Dr. Jiang Yanyong, retired chief of surgery for a Beijing military hospital, came as news surfaced that one of Beijing's hospitals had shut down because of SARS.
Jiang said doctors and nurses at two other hospitals told him at least seven deaths have occurred in their hospitals and that there were 106 cases of the disease in Beijing -- more than five times the figure announced by authorities. The Health Ministry reports four deaths and 19 cases in Beijing.
Doctors and administrators reached by telephone at the hospitals cited by Jiang refused to comment.
World Health Organization investigators said they met with Health Minister Zhang Wenkang and Vice Premier Wu Yi on Wednesday, discussing "the concern that there are many rumors and no clear answers," said Henk Bekedam, the WHO representative in China.
"They definitely said they will be following up ... and with this high level of commitment, very soon we'll get some real answers," Bekedam said.
At the People's Armed Police General Hospital in Beijing, a receptionist who answered the telephone said the facility had closed five days ago after staff members fell ill. She wouldn't give her name.
A sign blocking the hospital entrance said, "Adjustments being made inside, treatment temporarily suspended, entry forbidden."
Meanwhile, James Salisbury, a 52-year-old U.S. citizen and English instructor at a polytechnic institute in Guangdong province, was taken from a hospital in the border city of Shenzhen to Hong Kong, according to a family friend.
The friend, David Westbrook, said Salisbury showed no signs of life when he was put in an ambulance and driven across the border to Hong Kong.
A spokeswoman for the Shenzen health department said Thursday that Salisbury was in a "serious coma" when he left the Shenzhen hospital but he died in Hong Kong.
Salisbury's 6-year-old son, Mickey, also suffering from SARS, was being treated in Hong Kong's Tuen Mun Hospital and in stable condition, said a government spokeswoman, Josephine Yu.
Westbrook, said Salisbury had been ill for about a month but thought he had the flu and only sought treatment nine days ago. Salisbury had split his time between teaching in China and Orem, Utah, where he lived, according to one of his daughters.
Another American citizen, Shanghai businessman Johnny Chen, died March 13 in Hong Kong after becoming ill in Vietnam. There have been no SARS deaths in the United States, where there are 149 suspected cases.
The communist government has faced criticism abroad and from ordinary Chinese about its sluggish release of information about SARS. Despite recent pledges of openness by senior officials, the Health Ministry and other offices decline to release details about deaths and cases of infection.
The outbreak has prompted the cancellation of numerous events in China, from rock concerts to trade conventions. On Wednesday the vice premier pledged to help foreign visitors by setting up English hot lines and Web sites in major cities to deal with queries about SARS; hospitals will make special medical services available to foreigners as well, he said.
In the United States, three U.S. medical workers who cared for SARS patients likely have contracted the disease, according to Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There are 154 suspected cases in the United States.
Other countries took new actions to stop the disease's spread:
-- Concerns about possible exposure to SARS prompted health authorities in Toronto to close a high school and put about 200 workers at a business under quarantine. More than 200 probable or suspect cases have been reported in Canada, including 10 deaths and about 50 people who have recovered.
-- Malaysia stopped issuing visas Wednesday for most Chinese travelers, citing fears of SARS.
-- Indonesia told its citizens to stop spitting in public places.
-- Singapore's Roman Catholic Church reportedly ordered its priests to stop hearing confessions.
Thailand's leader promised to pay $48,000 to families of anyone who dies from SARS and can prove it was contracted during next week's traditional New Year celebrations. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's unusual offer demonstrated his confidence that "there's no SARS" in his country.
In Hong Kong, officials cautiously prepared to let more than 200 people go home from quarantine camps after they showed no signs of SARS. But there were two more deaths, bringing the total to 27, and 42 more cases reported there Wednesday as the illness continued its climb in the hardest-hit city.
SARS has killed more than 100 people worldwide and sickened more than 2,700.
China said Thursday its death toll from a mysterious flu-like illness has risen by two to 55. A brief Health Ministry statement didn't say where or when the newly reported death occurred. All but 10 of the deaths have been in Guangdong, where the first SARS case was reported in November.
The World Health Organization and several governments have issued warnings against traveling to Guangdong. A team of WHO investigators visited the province over the weekend in hopes of tracing the source of the disease, but said they hadn't found anything conclusive.
Despite the lack of answers, Dr. Meirion Evans, a Welsh epidemiologist and a member of the multinational WHO team, said insights gained there would be invaluable to learning more about the disease.