China bracing for winter Sars

2005-01-24 08:34

Guangzhou, China - Health officials in Guangdong province were Monday beefing up medical surveillance ahead of a mass exodus of migrant workers for the Chinese New Year holiday amid fears the deadly Sars virus could return.

Guangdong is where the first ever case of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome appeared two years ago, and seasonal factors are making the control of any potential outbreak of either Sars or bird flu more difficult.

"We don't know if Sars will return, it could come back, it might not come back, but all the same we are stepping up surveillance and detection work," said Feng Shaoming, head of the Guangdong Center for Disease Control (CDC).

"We are monitoring patients with fevers, we have set up isolated fever clinics in all hospitals. Everything is being put into place.

"We are watching the animals, like civet cats and birds like chickens. People should not get too close to these animals. Stay away. This is important," he said.

During the winter of 2002 and 2003, Sars ravaged China and spread around the world killing some 800 people and infecting over 8 000.

Only a handful of cases, mainly linked to bad sanitation measures at a medical laboratory in Beijing, appeared during the next winter, further underscoring the effectiveness of medical measures that the country has taken.

This year, if Sars does come back, doctors will be armed with a newly developed vaccine which could greatly limit fatalities, Feng said.

The new vaccine was developed by Chinese researchers, with initial tests showing that Sars antibodies had taken hold in patients given the vaccine in summer trials with no evident side-effects.

Animal tests earlier proved effective.

Still, Guangdong has set up plans to handle cases if and when they appear, said Ma Weilin, an official at the sanitation and disinfection department of the Guangzhou city CDC.

"January and February are the coldest months, so we are very busy right now making sure that everything is in place," Ma said.

"The Lunar New Year is the most dangerous time, as a lot of people are travelling, so all hospital and clinics are on the alert for fevers and colds."

Provincial-level experts have been ordered to be at the side of any patient suspected to have either Sars or bird flu within 12 hours of suspect symptoms first being reported, he said.

Experts were expected to immediately isolate suspect patients and identify and place under medical surveillance all other people who have had close contact with them, he said.

The virus has been largely traced to the civet cat, a weasel like animal that has become a culinary delicacy in southern China. Other animals that Cantonese favour as delicacies, like raccoon dogs, snakes and pangolins were also found to carry the virus.

Chinese experts were also closely monitoring outbreaks of bird flu in Vietnam and Thailand, where 41 people have died from avian influenza.


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