Wednesday, 26  March 2003  
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Singapore takes urgent measures as experts claim breakthrough in SARS

SINGAPORE, March 25 (AFP) - More than 700 Singaporeans were confined home Tuesday by government order to contain the spread of a deadly respiratory disease as US experts claimed a breakthrough in the hunt for the virus.

Singapore's Ministry of Health (MOH) for the first time in 33 years invoked the Infectious Diseases Act to keep 740 people under home quarantine, as the number of cases in the city-state rose to 65, with 12 in serious condition.

Health authorities will check the people daily in their homes, with first time violators to be fined 5,000 Singapore dollars (2,840 US) and second time offenders fined 10,000 Singapore dollars.

The disease known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which often manifests itself as an unusual form of penumonia, has already killed 17 people and infected more than 450 around the world, most of them in Asia, in the past two weeks.

Singapore schools were required to closely monitor children suffering from fever, and parents were told keep children at home if they show symptoms.

One government-run primary school was closed for 10 days from Monday after a five-year-old boy was diagnosed with SARS.

Some 200 students from a secondary school who may have come in contact with a 13-year-old infected girl were asked to stay away from school for a week.

MOH spokeswoman Buey Mui Leng told AFP there has been no order to defer the reopening of government schools, whose students returned Monday from a one-week break.

Private schools will use their own discretion on whether to suspend classes or not, she said.

She said the rare decision to invoke the quarantine law was taken to prevent the spread of the disease. The 740 people on the quarantine list were confined on the basis of possible contact with victims.

Singapore's Health Minister Lim Hng Kiang on Monday warned of possible fatalities in the city-state, saying eight patients were currently on respiratory support.

"We should not be shocked if one or two do not recover. The fact that they are in ICU (intensive care unit) ... suggests they are very ill," Lim said.

The MOH said that "any child with fever will be asked not to attend school, even though they may not have travelled to the affected areas" of Hong Kong, Hanoi and Guangdong in southern China.

The urgent measures in Singapore came as US health experts said they had detected a virus that probably causes SARS, which has killed 17 people worldwide so far, including four new deaths in Hong Kong and Vietnam on Monday.

Four schools were closed in Hong Kong for a week from Monday after five students, a teacher and a school bus driver were found to have SARS, officials said.

The French embassy in the Vietnamese capital said a local nurse and doctor working at the French Hospital there died after falling ill with SARS, bringing the death toll in Hanoi since the epidemic began this month to four.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US said the virus causing SARS was from the coronavirus group.

"We certainly have more work to do, but we think we are on the right track," said CDC director Julie Gerberding.

Gerberding praised the international cooperation to find the cause of the SARS.

"This collaboration among scientists led by the World Health Organisation is unprecedented," she said.

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