China isolates SARs case as Hong Kong men fall ill

WHO officials downplay talk of outbreak

Beijing boosts prevention efforts

January 09, 2004|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

BEIJING - China declared yesterday that it had isolated a new victim of SARS, and a Hong Kong television crew fell ill with symptoms of the ailment, heightening public fears of an outbreak at the onset of China's peak holiday-travel season.

Authorities issued stern warnings for travelers with even slight fevers to stay home as hundreds of millions of Chinese prepared to move around the country for the lunar New Year festival.

Workers sprayed disinfectant in airplanes, scanned travelers at bustling railway stations for high body temperatures and slaughtered thousands of animals suspected of spreading the sometimes-fatal severe acute respiratory syndrome virus. Foreign public health authorities criticized some of the measures as based on sketchy science.

Public health authorities in Guangzhou in southeast China said a 20-year-old waitress who was hospitalized Dec. 31 had tested positive for SARS. She remained in isolation at the No. 8 People's Hospital.

"Forty-eight people who had close contact with the waitress have been quarantined and found no symptoms of fever so far," the official Xinhua news agency reported.

A 32-year-old television producer, China's first SARS case since last year, was released earlier in the day from a Guangzhou hospital, Xinhua said.

In Hong Kong, two reporters and a camera operator from the TVB news channel developed coughs and fevers after visiting nearby Guangzhou last week to cover the SARS outbreak, health officials said. The three were put in isolation wards at Queen Mary Hospital.

A quick initial test of the two reporters in the TV crew showed up negative for SARS, Queen Mary Hospital said in a statement. Results for the third man were not yet available. The three remained in isolation pending further testing. No reliable test for SARS yet exists, and the quick polymerase chain reaction test now used is considered only 80 percent accurate.

Authorities across China carried out a highly visible public-health campaign to kill civet cats, badgers, raccoons, rats and other animals suspected of spreading the SARS virus. Authorities are determined to appear energetic in their efforts to combat the virus, which killed nearly 800 people last year, mostly in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

In southern Guangdong province, where the first outbreak of SARS is thought to have occurred in November 2002, thousands of workers wearing orange gloves and masks scattered rat poison along streets.

Authorities said they were making headway in meeting a goal of slaughtering 10,000 masked civet cats, which carry the SARS virus, by Saturday. In much of southern China, diners savor the meat of the civet cat and other small animals as a delicacy.

"We'd rather wrongly kill 10,000 civet cats than let one [infected one] go free," Xu Ruiheng, the deputy director of the Guangdong center for disease control, told the New Express Newspaper.

The World Health Organization dispatched a six-member team to Guangdong to investigate more deeply how the first SARS patient may have become infected.

"The guy is a Buddhist. He eats only fish. He swears up and down he's never eaten a civet cat," said Robert Dietz, a spokesman for the WHO office in Beijing.

WHO officials downplayed the specter of a new outbreak.

"We think there is, at this point, no significant public health risk," said Dr. Robert F. Breiman, head of the WHO team headed for Guangdong.

WHO officials criticized the massive slaughter of animals, including three civet cats in Guangzhou's zoo, because researchers haven't conclusively proved how SARS is spread. They said those who were killing the animals, if not wearing proper gear, could become a source of new SARS infection.

Travel has begun for the 40-day period surrounding the lunar new year, China's biggest holiday, which begins Jan. 22.

Authorities said they expected Chinese to take 1.89 billion trips during that period, a migration that would "put a population the size of about eight United States on the move," Xinhua said.

In Shenzhen, a large city in Guangdong, migrant workers formed a line three miles long yesterday outside a stadium where train tickets were on sale, Xinhua said.

The national Railway Ministry issued a statement saying authorities would single out any travelers with temperatures above 100.4 degrees and bar them from boarding.

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