BEIJING — China on Friday confirmed the world's first death from SARS this year as millions of Chinese were screened for symptoms of the contagious disease before boarding trains and planes for the May Day holiday.
The victim, a 53-year-old woman from the eastern province of Anhui who died last week, was the mother of a Beijing laboratory employee who contracted the virus on the job.
The woman, identified only by the surname Wei, had been reported as a suspected SARS case and test results were confirmed posthumously, according to the Ministry of Health.
The announcement raised China's number of confirmed cases to five, including a nurse who treated the lab worker at a Beijing hospital and the nurse's mother and aunt.
Four other patients who are suspected cases were hospitalized and hundreds of people who had contact with them were isolated and under medical observation.
World Health Organization experts said the cases didn't pose a public health threat, stressing that they were all linked to employees of Beijing's Institute of Virology — which had SARS samples — or others who had close contact with them.
China stepped up efforts to stem a new outbreak of the disease ahead of the weeklong May Day vacation that officially begins Saturday. More than 90 million Chinese were expected to travel during the break, and railways and airports were under orders to check people for fever — a key SARS symptom.
Travelers streaming past temperature monitors at airports and train stations on Friday appeared unfazed by the re-emergence of the disease that killed 349 people on the mainland last year.
Crowds of soldiers, backpacking students and migrant workers headed home to see family or on vacation converged on Shanghai's main railway station under a steady drizzle.
"SARS isn't even on our minds. Everything seems to be under control, and there isn't anything to worry about," said Li Chunming, a chef en route to the nearby city of Wuxi.
Students Shelly Ren and Lu Xiaohua said they weren't concerned either. "To be honest, I'm more worried about this rain ruining our holiday," Ren said.
The scene was a stark contrast from last year, when a major outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome killed 349 people in China and 774 worldwide, virtually shutting down holiday travel on the mainland.
Taiwan, meanwhile, said SARS had been ruled out as the cause of illness for a 79-year-old Taiwanese man who developed a fever and pneumonia symptoms shortly after returning from a two-week holiday in China.
WHO says that because the cases are in such a limited group, they aren't a public health threat. But the agency wants to find out how the lab worker got infected.
A WHO team visited the virus lab on Friday dressed head-to-toe in hooded white quarantine suits with protective gloves, boots and goggles.
"Certainly we believe that there has been a failure there. Exactly what, we don't know," said Dr. Julie Hall, SARS team leader for WHO in Beijing.
"You need a system that can protect us and prevent the virus getting out of laboratories," she said. "Secondly, you need a system that can quickly detect cases if they occur, and again there have been some weaknesses there."
China's government said it was cooperating with the WHO investigation of its lab practices.