10,000 Animals to Be Culled as SARS Returns to China

After a six-month absence, SARS has re-appeared in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, with a 32-year old man confirmed to be infected with a new strain of the virus. Provincial officials have declared a "patriotic" extermination of civet cats - the animal from which the virus is believed to have passed to humans - and variety of vermin. The World Health Organization, however, worries that the blanket culling of civets may be done too hastily to determine how the virus is being transmitted. The disease spread rapidly late in 2002 and through the first several months of 2003 but until now had not appeared outside the medical research community since the middle of last year. - YaleGlobal

10,000 Animals to Be Culled as SARS Returns to China

Jonathan Watts
Tuesday, January 6, 2004

Chinese authorities launched a "patriotic" extermination campaign against civet cats, badgers, raccoon dogs, rats and cockroaches yesterday, after confirming the country's first case of Sars for six months.

The planned slaughter of more than 10,000 animals in Guangdong province is a politically embarrassing u-turn for the local government, which ignored international warnings last summer that markets selling exotic animals for food were a potential reservoir for the deadly disease.

The move was criticised by the World Health Organisation, which said the cull could destroy evidence of the origins of the outbreak.

After the news that a Filipino couple showing symptoms of the disease have been quarantined, Asian countries tried to head off a new outbreak by tightening health checks at airports, strengthening quarantine procedures at hospitals and advising their citizens to improve hygiene at home.

The latest confirmed case of Sars, in a 32-year-old man in Guangdong, is the only one outside the medical research community since last summer. Two other cases - in Singapore and Taiwan - have been confirmed in recent weeks, but both were scientists who contracted the disease during laboratory experiments.

After weeks of tests, the freelance television reporter was confirmed as the first victim on the mainland since July.

The disease, a kind of pneumonia, emerged in Guangdong at the end of 2002 and spread around the world, killing 774 people and infecting about 8,000 others.

The patient has been quarantined in Guangzhou - the provincial capital - since showing typical symptoms of the disease in mid December. No one he has been in contact with has shown signs of being infected.

Medical officials said yesterday that the man had contracted a new strain of Sars, similar to that identified in civet cats and other wild animals, which are considered a delicacy in Guangdong.

He reportedly told doctors he had not eaten any exotic animal dishes in the month before his illness, although he had touched a rat. Even so, wildlife markets are to be shut down and thousands of the animals to be sold there will be culled.

People will also be urged to destroy vermin. "We will start a patriotic health campaign to kill rats and cockroaches in order to give every place a thorough cleaning for the lunar new year," Feng Liu xiang, of the Guangdong health bureau, told reporters.

The Guangdong government lifted controls on sales of civet cats and other species soon after the all-clear on Sars in humans was given last July. WHO officials criticised the move as "premature."

WHO experts have now warned against a hasty cull. "We could indeed be destroying the evidence," said Dr Jeffrey Gilbert, a WHO animal expert who called for civets to be carefully examined and disposed of.

There has been no sign of the Sars panic that struck China last year, but Hong Kong, which neighbours Guangdong, has stepped up health checks at airports and ordered all hospital staff, patients and visitors to wear surgical masks.

In the Philippines, a couple exhibiting severe Sars-like symptoms have been isolated in a Manila hospital for several days until confirmatory tests have been completed, health officials said yesterday.

The couple's doctor - who treated the woman on December 24 when she developed a high fever - and children have been isolated, but none has yet shown Sars symptoms.

Officials are trying to track down all the people with whom the couple have had contact since the woman arrived in the Philippines from Hong Kong on December 20.

Copyright © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004