Officials announced today the first death of a foreigner in China from severe acute respiratory syndrome, as the death toll in the country from the flu-like illness rose to 51.
Premier Wen Jiabao, meanwhile, was quoted by state-run media as saying that China was capable of curbing the spread of the disease, known as SARS, which in the past four days has killed five people and infected 57, according to official figures released today. Worldwide, SARS has killed about 90 people and infected more than 2,400 in 18 countries.
The disease, which is believed to have originated in southern China in November, constitutes the first test of a new government, led by Wen and President Hu Jintao, who took office last month. China has come under intense domestic and international criticism for its slow response to the disease and in informing other countries and territories about it..
Wen reiterated statements by other Chinese officials that it was safe to visit China despite a World Health Organization advisory discouraging nonessential travel to Guangdong province, the apparent source of the disease, and to Hong Kong.
"The Chinese government and people warmly welcome friends worldwide to come to our country for tourism, visits or to engage in commercial activities," the official New China News Agency quoted Wen as saying.
At a hastily called news conference, health officials announced the death of a Finnish national, Pekka Aro, 53, an official of the Geneva-based International Labor Organization, part of the United Nations. Aro, 53, died in Beijing at about 1:30 a.m. .
Aro arrived in Beijing on March 23 from Thailand and came down with a fever on March 28, according to Guo Jiyong, deputy director of the Beijing Health Bureau. Aro was in Beijing to prepare for the China Employment Forum, which has been canceled.
Guo said Aro's condition deteriorated last night, and he died of respiratory failure. Guo and other Chinese officials said they believed Aro had contracted SARS outside of Beijing. They said none of the 19 cases China officially recognizes in Beijing contracted the disease in the city, although it was not clear how they had reached that conclusion. A second foreigner, a Canadian, is also sick with the disease in Beijing, Guo said. Guo and other officials said they were monitoring people who had come in contact with Aro in Beijing and fellow passengers aboard his flight from Bangkok to Beijing on a Thai airline.
China's response to SARS has angered and befuddled Western scientists and policymakers. U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy G. Thompson talked with China's health minister, Zhang Wenkang, on Friday in an attempt to underscore the necessity of cooperating with international institutions to fight the disease.
A WHO team is in Guangdong province looking for factors that might have led to the disease.
Meanwhile, the government of Hong Kong announced 42 new cases, including a senior hospital official, bringing the total number of infected people in the territory to 842. Two more patients died there, raising the death toll to 22, the government said.