S. China province rushes to quell SARS

TV producer has disease

civet slaughter planned

January 06, 2004|By Mark Magnier and Tyler Marshall | Mark Magnier and Tyler Marshall,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BEIJING - The World Health Organization confirmed yesterday that a 32-year-old television producer from southern China's Guangdong province is the first known SARS case among the public since the disease was contained in July.

Two recent cases in Singapore and Taiwan were linked to researchers reportedly exposed in their labs.

The WHO announcement, which followed a report of the case earlier in the day by China's Health Ministry, came after exhaustive tests on the unnamed patient, the people he came in contact with and his immediate environment, including where he slept, ate, walked and what kind of rats inhabited his housing block.

Chinese officials reported that the television producer was in stable condition yesterday afternoon and said those who came into contact with him have displayed no symptoms.

The confirmation followed reports of two other suspected cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome in the public, one in Guangdong involving a waitress in a restaurant that serves meat of wild animals - subsequently denied as SARS by a Chinese official - and another in the Philippines involving a domestic worker who had recently returned from Hong Kong.

"Everyone's getting edgy," said Bob Dietz, a WHO official in Beijing.

Officials with the health organization gave China solid marks yesterday for quickly detecting the case involving the producer, isolating the man and bringing global health officials into the picture.

They added that many questions remain unanswered, however, with potential implications for public health worldwide.

It is still not known how the patient came down with the disease or, more broadly, where SARS originates and what its exact link is with wild animals.

The government wasn't taking any chances yesterday, however, as it announced plans to shut down wild animal markets in southern China.

It also said it would slaughter up to 10,000 civets - a ferret-like creature related to the mongoose and suspected of transmitting the disease, that diners in the south consider a delicacy - possibly along with some kinds of wild dogs and badgers.

The previously unknown pneumonia-like corona virus, which first surfaced in Guangdong in November 2002, infected more than 8,000 people and killed 774 worldwide - including 299 Hong Kong fatalities - before it was brought under control last June.

In Hong Kong, news of the confirmed SARS case yesterday triggered several preventive steps.

These include more extensive temperature checks on the city's shared border with Guangdong, restrictions on anyone arriving with a fever, testing of Hong Kong pneumonia patients who were recently in Guangdong and a requirement that all local health workers wear masks and frequently wash their hands.

"If you look at the risk factor, it's still at a very low level," said Lam Ping-yan, Hong Kong's director of health. "But we don't want SARS to come back, so we need early detection."

WHO scientists in Beijing also downplayed the danger and said travel throughout China remained safe. "We have to be clear about it," said Henk Bekedam, WHO's China representative. "It doesn't mean one case leads to a public health threat."

Relative to many diseases the world is forced to live with, scientists added, SARS can be eliminated with further monitoring, vaccines, research and surveillance by the international community.

China banned trade in civets last April, then reinstated it four months later against the advice of global experts. WHO scientists expressed concern yesterday, however, that the massive culling of civets might go too far in the other direction.

There's still no proof that civets are the main conduit for the human form of the virus, researchers said.

And the cull, if done improperly, could re-ignite SARS by subjecting animal workers and others to the virus through blood and tissue, said Jeffrey Gilbert, a WHO expert in the transmission of diseases between animals and people.

Hong Kong University infectious disease expert Yuen Kwok-yung countered, however, that it was better to be safe than sorry.

"The civet kill is the best way to stop this before it gets started," he said.

In recent months, China has sought to be more forthcoming about health-related problems after coming under harsh domestic and international criticism for its handling of the initial SARS crisis.

Hospitals and clinics are under orders to report possible cases immediately, compared with late 2002 and early 2003 when government officials initially denied, then sought to downplay, the epidemic, giving SARS more time and opportunity to incubate.

Mark Magnier reported from Beijing and Tyler Marshall from Hong Kong. The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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