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China Threatens Execution of Those Knowingly Spreading SARS

BY Admin  May 15, 2003 at 4:10 PM EDT

The news came as Taiwan reported its biggest one-day jump in SARS cases and quarantined hundreds of people at three major hospitals.

China, which has reported 271 deaths and about two-thirds of the world’s almost 7,700 known SARS cases, issued a harsh interpretation of its laws on contagious disease after reports that people were violating quarantine orders or refusing to admit to the symptoms.

“Intentionally spreading sudden contagious disease pathogens, endangering public security or serious personal injury, death or heavy loss of public or private property will be punishable by from 10 years to life in prison or the death penalty,” China’s official Xinhua news agency said.

Chinese officials acknowledged that health controls might not be sufficient to contain the epidemic.

“The potential risk and channels for the SARS epidemic to spread to the countryside persist,” said Vice Agriculture Minister Liu Jian. “We need to rouse utmost attention and caution.”

Human rights groups said the punishment, which was laid down by the Supreme Court and the chief prosecutor, was excessive.

“The measure is too extreme and the punishment too heavy,” Hong Kong-based activist Frank Lu told Reuters.

“It violates the international human rights covenant and was not approved by the National People’s Congress,” Lu said, referring to China’s parliament.

But the World Health Organization, which has consistently warned of the danger of SARS spreading in China’s countryside, said people must act responsibly.

“I think it sounds very tough,” WHO representative in China Henk Bekedam told Reuters. “But I do believe that people have a certain responsibility and it’s very important that people understand what that responsibility is.”

Despite the presence the contagious disease in neighboring mainland China, Taiwan had only a handful of SARS cases until late April when the disease began to spread more rapidly on the island. On Thursday Taiwan reported 264 confirmed cases and 30 deaths. Outbreaks in hospitals are making aggravating the crisis.

Taipei’s Mackay Memorial Hospital said Thursday 90 workers were quarantined after staff showed SARS-like symptoms, and a similar quarantine was imposed at a hospital in Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second largest city.

Taiwanese authorities also sought to track down 1,600 people who may have come into contact with SARS patients at Taipei’s National Taiwan University Hospital, which has been overwhelmed by a surge in cases. Some 10,000 people are already ordered confined to their homes in Taiwan.

Taiwan’s government has ordered all subway passengers to wear face masks and canceled leave for the military. The army’s chemical warfare unit has become a common sight as it disinfects the capital district by district.

Meanwhile, the WHO issued new recommendations for blood safety precautions, saying that people should avoid giving blood during the three weeks following close contact with a SARS patient. No one is known to have contracted the disease through a contaminated blood, but WHO officials say they cannot yet rule out the possibility.