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Taiwan Health Minister Resigns Over Mishandling of SARS

Taiwan’s minister of health, Twu Shiing-jer, told parliament after tendering his resignation, ”I feel that my supervision was inadequate.”

Twu Shiing-Jer’s resignation came as 10 more cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome were reported in his country.

The straight-talking Twu said he was partly responsible for a chain of SARS infections at the island’s most reputable hospitals this week and for a shortage of protective masks.

Taiwan’s new health chief is Chen Chien-jen, 51, who studied at Johns Hopkins University and heads a cabinet task force on SARS.

Many of the island’s SARS cases are traceable to one woman’s 40-minute visit to a Taipei emergency ward on April 9, a doctor said Friday.

The woman was not yet diagnosed but was four days into her SARS infection, which is when the disease is most virulent, said Yeh Chin-chuan, an adviser to the Taipei city government charged with examining the outbreak at Hoping Hospital.

Her brief stay there set off a chain of events that caused outbreaks at four other Taiwanese hospitals where dozens were sickened, Yeh said in a report released Friday.

As soon as the woman was diagnosed, she was sent to a better-equipped hospital, but she had already infected a nurse at Hoping. The nurse passed the disease to a hospital laundry worker, who began showing SARS symptoms April 12 and infected several patients and health workers, Yeh said.

Hoping, a large city-run institution, is one of two Taiwan hospitals shut down as officials scramble to control the illness.

The woman, who has recovered, said she may have been exposed to the virus while taking a train to central Taiwan. A Hong Kong man also on the train to visit his brother in Taiwan had SARS, but only showed symptoms after he returned home, officials said.

Before the troubles at Hoping, Taiwan had only 33 SARS cases, and most were people returning from China.

Lee Ming-liang, head of the government’s SARS Control Committee, said that another wave of cases was about to erupt because of the most recent outbreaks at the National Taiwan University and Chang Gung hospitals. New infections are expected to begin to crop up after May 10, he said.

SARS outbreaks in Taiwan are also taking a toll on island nation’s economy, crippling consumer spending and leaving shops, restaurants and airports empty.

Taiwan on Friday cut its expectations for economic growth this year to 2.9 percent from 3.7 percent, and fears growth will slow another percentage point if SARS lasts until the year’s end.

President Chen Shui-bian told Taiwanese to prepare for a long fight against the disease.

“A tiny spark could set off a bush fire,” Chen said. “Even if we fail to fix a small hole, all our past efforts and sacrifices would have been made for no avail.”

As the political and economic impact of the virus battered Taiwan, there was good news in Singapore where a cluster of suspected cases turned out to be influenza.

The World Health Organization said Friday Singapore had seen “dramatic change” in its fight with SARS and could be declared SARS-free by Sunday if a group of patients and staff from a mental institute test negative for SARS.

Thirty patients and 13 staff at Singapore’s Institute of Mental Health were isolated after coming down with fever, but initial tests show they may have caught a virulent strain of the flu bug, not SARS, Singapore public health officials say.

“If it’s not SARS then we are back in the position as though this outbreak had not occurred,” said Dr. Stephen Lambert, a WHO official in Singapore. “We would… still be looking at approaching a 20-day period with no local transmissions.”

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