BEIJING – China replaced its health minister Saturday in a shakeup triggered by criticism officials responded too slowly to the SARS (search) outbreak, while Asian health ministers agreed on a plan to try to slow the spread of the illness.
Health Minister Zhang Wenkang (search) resigned and China's parliament appointed Vice Premier Wu Yi to take over his duties, the official Xinhua News Agency said. Wu, China's highest-ranking woman, already was the top official in charge of health care.
In Malaysia's capital, health ministers from across Asia met Saturday and agreed on a plan to boost screening at international departure points, bar travelers with SARS symptoms, and require health declaration forms for visitors from affected countries.
"The threat posed by SARS is unprecedented," Shigeru Omi, the regional director of the World Health Organization, told officials from Southeast Asia, China, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea.
"We must be absolutely relentless in our search for every possible SARS case. We must use every weapon at our disposal," he said.
The meeting came as officials reported seven new deaths from severe acute respiratory syndrome in China, five more in Hong Kong and three more in Canada. The highly contagious illness has now killed at least 293 people worldwide and infected more than 4,600.
In Canada, the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team played the Kansas City Royals late Friday before a large crowd in their first home game since the WHO (search) advised travelers to avoid Toronto. Prime Minister Jean Chretien insisted that Toronto was a safe place to visit despite 19 SARS deaths there.
In China, Zhang was stripped of his Communist Party posts last weekend after his deputy said at a news conference that the ministry was to blame for failing to provide effective guidance in fighting SARS.
Beijing's mayor also was replaced this week after a senior party official was quoted by state media blaming him for failing cited by World Health Organization investigators. They included not tracing people exposed to those infected with SARS.
The shakeup comes amid increasingly drastic official efforts launched in the past two weeks after criticism at home and abroad of China's earlier lack of response to pleas for information and cooperation.
Two Beijing hospitals were closed this week and city health officials said 4,000 people who might have been exposed to the virus have been ordered to stay at home under quarantine. A third hospital already was closed earlier after some of its staff reportedly were infected.
The government also is trying to discourage Chinese from traveling and possibly spreading the virus.
The newfound urgency came after President Hu Jintao and other senior leaders last week declared fighting SARS a national priority and ordered Chinese officials to disclose all data on the epidemic.
Since then, newly reported figures on deaths and infections have surged. But China still hasn't released enough details to make it clear whether the outbreak is worsening or whether the newly reported cases are people who were infected some time ago.
The WHO says there are several signs needed to indicate the outbreak is finally contained: when the spread in the local community is stemmed; when no new infections have been exported to other countries for a certain amount of time; when the total number of cases falls to a certain level; and when the number of new infections detected each day is under a particular number.