Malaysia records first probable SARS death


Malaysia says that a man who died in the capital six days ago was probably the country's first known victim of the flu-like virus Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which has swept much of Asia.

A senior Malaysian health official told journalists the 64-year-old man, who died in a Kuala Lumpur hospital on Sunday, visited Singapore and China in early March, where he fell sick.

The official said the man's family and other close contacts had been quarantined.

"We have classified the death as a probable SARS case after reviewing the post-mortem results," said Mohamed Taha Arif, director-general of the health ministry.

"He had signs of pneumonia and an enlarged heart," he added. Since March 18, Malaysia has screened 75 people showing SARS-like symptoms of fever, aches and coughs, Taha said. The bulk of them have already been cleared, although five more possible cases were admitted to hospital on Friday.

Taha said he was unable to give an up-to-date figure on the number of people in hospital awaiting the results of tests.

The Malaysian authorities have had to counter public scepticism over their handling of the scare.

Letters to newspapers raised doubts whether the government was fully disclosing the extent of SARS in the country in order to avoid jeopardising Malaysia's position as a popular tourist destination.

When the New Straits Times daily reported on Wednesday that a suspected SARS sufferer had died, health ministry officials initially said it was unlikely he had been killed by the virus.

If confirmed, the 64-year-old's death would be the first case of SARS recorded in Malaysia, which has a large ethnic Chinese minority and has been bracing for the virus to reach its shores after an outbreak in next-door Singapore and in Hong Kong and southern China.

Some of those infected in Singapore include Malaysians working in the city-state. The virus has so far killed more than 80 people worldwide -- mostly in China where the illness is thought to have originated.

Malaysia said on Friday that all visitors to one of Southeast Asia's most popular tourist spots will be required to make health declarations with immediate effect.

A record 13 million people visited Malaysia last year, including five million day-trippers from Singapore.

Officials at hotels in Kuala Lumpur said they had started to fall the impact of SARS on bookings.

"There are some cancellations, but I just can't give you more details," said a receptionist at a five-star hotel in Kuala Lumpur's main shopping district.

A public relations officer at another five-star hotel said the occupancy rate declined to 79 percent in March.

"March occupancy stood at 89 percent last year. We do have cancellations now, but it's safe to say the main reasons are both due the war in Iraq and SARS. I can't say the decline was solely due to SARS," he added.