April 09, 2003
Why So Many Disease Strains Come From China

Lots of new strains of influenza first show up in China. The reason is that tens of millions of humans live in close contact with a large variety of farm animals in conditions which encourage viruses to jump between species.

Dongxing is just one example of how Guangdong's 80 million people live close to the animals, poultry and fish they eat. At another piggery close to Mrs Yang's, a farmer keeps young chickens next to his pigs. All the piggeries empty their waste into the ponds where shrimp and grass-carp are raised for the table.

In other places, battery chickens are kept above the pig pens, feeding their waste into the pigs' food troughs. The close proximity and cross pollution adds to the risk of animal viruses infecting humans, either directly or via pigs

Of course it would be great if Chinese farming practices were changed in ways that would reduce the chances of viruses jumping between species. But the farmers who engage in the dangerous livestock raising practices are poor and do not have a lot of alternatives. As China industrializes one can expect conditions to improve as agriculture industrializes, becomes more capital intensive and less labor intensive. With fewer people down on the farm fewer people will come into contact with pigs, ducks, chickens, and other farm animals.

Given that China is such a threat as an origin of new pathogen strains and of pathogen species that jump between mammalian species it would also be great if the Chinese government was really eager to pursue proper public health policies for controlling epidemic disease outbreaks. However, as I explained in my ParaPundit blog posting Repressive Governments Make Fight Against SARS More Difficult the Chinese government, being a repressive regime that has lots of motives to cover up the truth, has plenty of reasons to mishandle an epidemic disease outbreak.

In spite of my previous readings and writings on why the Chinese government does what it does I was still floored to read that the Chinese government is currently trying to encourage domestic tourism as a way to assure international travellers that China is a safe destination.

Despite the risk of spreading the disease across this country, the government thinks that a successful May 1st holiday will help convince international travelers that China is safe, Chinese officials said.

Hong Kong is less an open society than it used to be but it is sufficiently open that scientists there are openly discussing the possibility that SARS will not be stopped.

Samson Wong, a microbiologist from Hong Kong University, said that Sars might infect 80 per cent of the population within two years and eventually everyone could be infected. A Health Department spokeswoman said that the possibility could not be ruled out but declined further comment.

What is making infectious disease experts less optimistic that SARS will be contained is the inability to trace some SARS cases to person-to-person contacts. This has led scientists to speculate that SARS may in some cases be spreading by cockroaches, sewage, contaminated surfaces such as door knobs, and by other means.

But in recent days, epidemiologists have been unable to trace a number of SARS outbreaks in hotels, hospitals and apartment complexes in Hong Kong, Singapore and China to such person-to-person spread.

In the face of such scientific uncertainty the Chinese government continues to be irresponsible in its handling of the SARS outbreak. It may become necessary for more governments to follow the example of Malaysia and start restricting travellers from Hong Kong and China.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 April 09 06:02 PM  Dangers Natural Bio

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