BEIJING – Warning that its SARS (search) situation was "still grim," China announced measures to repair mounting economic damage and help airlines, tourism and other industries battered by the illness, state media reported Thursday.
The news came as World Health Organization (search) investigators traveled to a northern Chinese province to study how to stop SARS from spreading in the poor countryside. A major outbreak in densely populated farming areas would be a catastrophe because rural hospitals are ill-equipped to deal with the epidemic.
China announced five more fatalities Thursday, raising the global number of deaths to at least 503. The vast majority of severe acute respiratory syndrome fatalities have been in China's mainland and Hong Kong (search).
China's new economic measures, issued during a Cabinet meeting led by Premier Wen Jiabao on Wednesday, appeared in a report by the official Xinhua News Agency on the front pages of the Communist Party newspaper People's Daily and other major papers.
"The current SARS situation is still grim, and the economic impact is more pronounced each day," the Xinhua dispatch said.
Airlines, hotels and other travel businesses have been hit hard by travel bans and warnings for foreigners to avoid China. Private economists have cut their forecasts of China's economic growth this year -- projected at 7 percent by the government -- by up to 1.5 percentage points.
China's Cabinet ordered businesses in SARS-affected areas not to lay off employees and told local officials to adopt policies to help aviation, tourism, restaurants and other businesses damaged by SARS, Xinua said. The orders also asked officials to ensure that farmers plant and harvest their crops.
The Cabinet told officials to continue efforts to increase imports and attract foreign investment. The reports didn't mention any promises of government financial aid or give details about how the plans would be carried out.
Early Thursday, the four-member WHO team arrived in the northern city of Baoding in Hebei province, which borders hard-hit Beijing, Xinhua said. It said the WHO officials planned to inspect hospitals, talk to medical workers and visit rural areas around Baoding during the five-day visit.
Xinhua said the team will investigate Hebei's ability "to identify, report, contain, isolate and care for people with the disease."
Densely populated Hebei on Wednesday reported 21 new cases of infection, raising its total to at least 134. The province's number of probable cases has "risen sharply," doubling to 98 between April 30 and May 4, WHO said on its Web site.
The province is home to many migrant laborers who work in Beijing, and the WHO has said it's worried that the frequent traffic of people might spread the disease.
In some villages, farmers have been resorting to folk remedies and superstitions to try to ward off SARS. The People's Daily on Thursday urged villagers in the northern province of Shanxi to stop trying to scare away SARS with fireworks, which have been fired from before midnight until the early morning.
Also in Hebei, civil servants are being encouraged to bow to people instead of shaking hands -- which could carry the virus, Xinhua said.
In the United States, thousands of customs and immigration inspectors were being trained to spot SARS symptoms and were ordered to detain those who exhibit them as part of attempts to prevent a U.S. outbreak. Symptoms include high fever, dry cough and breathing trouble.
In Washington, Homeland Security Department spokesman Dennis Murphy said 22 major U.S. airports would have public health officials on site.
Highlighting the tragedy wrought by SARS, Taiwan announced that a young nurse, who had worked at a hospital during a SARS outbreak, died of the disease -- just weeks before she was to deliver her first baby.
In the Philippines, health officials recommended virgin coconut oil as a food supplement to fight SARS.
Dr. Consorcia Quizon, chief of the nation's National Epidemiology Center, said virgin coconut oil -- which comes from freshly harvested coconuts -- might be effective in preventing the spread of the lipid or oil-coated coronavirus.
Monolaurin contains lauric acid, which is believed to have anti-viral properties.
"We can recommend it as a food supplement. Take note that we do not claim that this is medicinal. We are saying food supplement," she said in a radio interview.