Death Toll in China, Hong Kong Rises; Vietnam Is First to Contain Outbreak

In what may be the first glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel for Asia's SARS health crisis, the World Health Organization on Monday declared Vietnam the first affected country to effectively contain its outbreak of the deadly virus.

The Vietnamese government "showed strong commitment at the highest level from the beginning of the outbreak," the WHO (search) said in a statement during the weekend.

Other Asian governments, meanwhile, kept up the fight with quarantines and travel restrictions. Taiwan on Monday began enforcing a 10-day quarantine for visitors arriving from areas hit hard by SARS (search), prompting airlines to cancel some flights there, while Malaysia sealed off a hospital in Kuching they fear may be the site of an outbreak.

Severe acute respiratory syndrome has prompted a rare global alert from WHO and travel advisories against affected countries.

But the WHO lifted all travel advisories Monday for Vietnam, which had five deaths from SARS after the virus spread in February through Hanoi's only international hospital.

Sixty-three people contracted the virus in Vietnam. But the Hanoi French Hospital was cordoned off on March 11, a move credited with slowing the rate of infection and keeping SARS from spreading beyond its doors.

"The WHO would like to congratulate Vietnam on being the first country in the world to contain SARS," Pascale Brudon, the WHO representative in Vietnam, said at a news conference in Hanoi.

No new SARS cases have been reported in Vietnam since April 8. WHO has set a 20-day window -- double the disease's incubation period -- as the standard for lifting travel advisories and declaring that an outbreak is no longer spreading.

"Vietnam has been able to show the world that there is hope that SARS can be contained," Brudon said.

Worldwide, SARS has killed at least 330 people worldwide since it surfaced in November in southern China and spread internationally via air travel. It has sickened more than 4,800, most of them in Asia.

In Hong Kong, authorities said Monday that another five SARS patients died, while 14 new cases were confirmed, the lowest yet since the government began releasing daily statistics last month. The latest deaths in Hong Kong brought the territory's toll to 138.

In China, health officials raised the mainland's death toll to 140 on Monday and said 3,106 people have been confirmed infected -- an increase of 203 cases from the previous day's figures.

In an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp., WHO head Gro Harlem Brundtland said there was still time to keep SARS from spreading globally, through travel warnings and checks of travelers for symptoms, such as fever, dry cough and shortness of breath.

"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.

In contrast to Vietnam, China has been widely criticized for failing to respond earlier to pleas for action to contain the disease, which surfaced in the southern province of Guangdong in November and spread internationally via travelers from Hong Kong.

But officials there have been taking strong action in recent days, sacking Beijing's mayor and the health minister and closing public schools in the capital.

Beijing on Sunday closed the city's theaters, cinemas, Internet cafes and other public entertainment venues to "stop possible spread of the SARS virus and ensure public health," the official Xinhua New Agency reported.

Hundreds of construction workers were working around-the-clock on a new 1,000-bed isolation camp for SARS victims on Beijing's northern outskirts.

Starting Monday in Taiwan -- which has had one SARS death -- foreigners arriving from countries hit hard by SARS will be quarantined for 10 days at government-designated quarters, while returning Taiwan residents will have to stay at home.

Singapore Airlines canceled one flight to Taipei from the hard-hit Hong Kong, an airlines spokesman said on condition of anonymity. State-run China Broadcasting Corp. said only one Cathay Pacific flight, CX510, arrived from Hong Kong Monday morning, carrying 24 passengers.

The radio quoted Cathay officials as saying its crew members would immediately fly back to Hong Kong to avoid Taiwan's quarantine.

In Malaysia, health authorities sealed off a psychiatric hospital they fear may be the site of a SARS outbreak, quarantining its 540 staff and patients.

Fifteen patients and four nurses have reported respiratory problems at the hospital in Kuching, the capital city of eastern Sarawak state on Borneo island, said Health Ministry Deputy Director General Ismail Merican.

"We hope the cases are not SARS-related," Ismail told reporters. "For now, nobody comes in and nobody gets out of the hospital."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.