BEIJING – China closed theaters, Internet cafes, discos and other recreational venues Sunday in its expanding campaign to halt the spread of SARS as the government said it had identified nearly 3,000 cases of the highly infectious respiratory illness.
The Beijing city government closed public gathering spots to "stop possible spread of the SARS virus and ensure public health," the official Xinhua New Agency said.
The action came amid increasingly drastic steps to contain the disease that have included closing schools, sending home 1.7 million students, and imposing a quarantine on thousands of people in the capital.
The Health Ministry on Sunday reported 161 new cases of infection, raising the total to 2,914. Of the new infections, 126 were reported in Beijing, underscoring the capital's role as the center of the outbreak's spread.
China reported nine new deaths from SARS, eight of them in Beijing, raising the toll to 131.
Taiwan's government announced Sunday the island's first SARS death and imposed a 10-day mandatory quarantine on all people arriving from areas hit hard by the flu-like disease, including China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Vietnam and the Canadian city of Toronto.
The island's death, a 56-year-old man, died Saturday night after contracting the disease from his brother, who had visited Hong Kong.
In London, the head of the World Health Organization said there is still time to halt the global spread of the disease if affected countries take appropriate measures.
Gro Harlem Brundtland, director-general of the WHO, said SARS did not have to become an endemic virus on the scale of the Spanish Influenza or HIV.
"I think we still have a window of opportunity," he told the British Broadcasting Corp. "We still have a chance to contain it and to have it go down in the places where outbreaks are already happening and avoid it spreading to new countries."
Brundtland said measures such as airport checks on tourists and travel warnings for affected countries were burdensome but vital to contain the disease.
Meanwhile, health officials in Hong Kong said Sunday that 12 more SARS patients have died, pushing the territory's toll to 133.
Hong Kong reported just 16 new cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome, for a total of 1,543. That was one fewer than officials had reported on Saturday and represents the lowest total yet for any 24-hour period since Hong Kong began releasing daily SARS statistics in March.
Elsewhere, India reported its sixth case of the disease in the crowded eastern city of Calcutta -- a man who had arrived from Bombay on April 18 after a visit to China. In the western city of Pune, health authorities said four SARS patients in a hospital were responding well to treatment and could be released from hospital later this week.
Singapore said it would close dozens of the island's popular food courts and markets on Monday to conduct a massive cleaning to prevent the spread of the illness.
Builders in China worked around-the-clock to finish a new 1,000-bed hospital for SARS patients in the Beijing's northern outskirts. The capital has already doubled the number of hospitals for patients with the illness to six, but hospital staff have said wards may soon be overwhelmed.
City officials raised the maximum fine for spitting in public -- thought to be a means of SARS transmission -- by 1,000 percent to $6, the Beijing Youth Daily reported.
Authorities also suspended registration of marriages between foreigners and Chinese in order to help curb SARS, said an official at the city government's Civil Affairs Department. Registrations of marriages between Chinese citizens were unaffected, said the official, who would only give his surname, Wang. He would not explain the dual policy, or say how it could control SARS.
Officials also have cut short the upcoming weeklong May Day vacation in an attempt to keep tens of millions of Chinese from traveling and possibly spreading the virus.
But Beijing's airport and train stations have been jammed with migrant workers, college students and expatriates fleeing the capital.
The length of the closures of entertainment venues will depend on progress made in combatting SARS, which has killed at least 42 people and sickened 988 in Beijing, Xinhua said.
Beijing's entertainment businesses have already suffered massive losses as nervous residents shun public places for fear of catching the flu-like virus.
Such places pose a particular risk of infection because it is "difficult for these entertainment venues to meet the requirements for disinfection and ventilation," Xinhua said. Public libraries also have been closed but will reopen on May 8, it said.
Restaurants and shopping centers remained open Sunday, although customers were few. Public parks, Tiananmen Square, and historic sites such as the Forbidden City -- the sprawling former home of China's emperors -- were mostly empty because of a ban on Chinese tour groups traveling outside their home provinces.
The World Health Organization has also advised travelers to avoid nonessential trips to Beijing.
The communist government has been widely criticized for failing to respond earlier to pleas for action. Ordinary Chinese complain that it didn't give them information needed to protect themselves.
On Saturday, China replaced the health minister after he was blamed for not taking effective action on SARS. New Health Minister Wu Yi, also a vice premier, is a former trade envoy and already was the top official in charge of health care.