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China on the hunt for civet cats

Authorities in southern China threatened fines of up to $12,000 for merchants who try to hide civet cats, a day ahead of the deadline to slaughter thousands of the animals because of fears they carry a virus linked to SARS.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Authorities in southern China on Friday threatened fines of up to $12,000 for merchants who try to hide civet cats, a day ahead of the deadline to slaughter thousands of the animals because of fears they carry a virus linked to SARS.

Guangdong province, with a second suspected SARS case announced Thursday, intensified its campaign to clean streets and wipe out civets plus other potential carriers that have been labeled the “four dangers” — rats, roaches, flies and mosquitoes.

Civets, a local delicacy, were ordered seized from markets and slaughtered after tests suggested a link between them and China’s first SARS case of the season, a 32-year-old television producer.

Caution urged
A five-member World Health Organization team was in Guangzhou on Friday to help Chinese experts try to figure out how the man was exposed to the virus. WHO officials have urged caution with the civet slaughter, saying it could destroy medical clues or expose those involved in the cull to SARS.

The WHO experts haven’t joined the investigation into the second suspected case, team spokesman Roy Wadia said, adding that experts from the two sides were meeting Friday to figure out how to proceed.

Health workers have been drowning, electrocuting and incinerating civet cats by the thousands.

The order to kill civets set a deadline of Saturday and later was expanded to include badgers, racoon dogs and some other wildlife eaten in Guangzhou.

After Saturday, “any business person caught hiding civets will be fined between 10,000 and 100,000 yuan ($1,200 to $12,000),” said the newspaper Guangzhou Daily.

Though Guangzhou is a major business center and one of China’s most prosperous areas, such fines are severe in a society where annual urban incomes average just $700 per person.

Merchants also have an incentive to hide civets. The animals can fetch some $10 per pound.

Guangzhou newspapers ran front-page pictures of Mayor Zhang Guangning, wearing bright red gloves, scooping rat poison from red buckets onto a city sidewalk.

Last year, Guangdong was labeled the birthplace of severe acute respiratory syndrome when the first case was detected there in November. The disease killed 58 people in the province and spread worldwide, claiming 774 lives before subsiding in July.

On Thursday, a 20-year-old waitress was declared China’s second-suspected SARS case. She was isolated in the Guangzhou No. 8 People’s Hospital and her status was unchanged, said a spokesman for the provincial health bureau. He refused to give his name.

The announcement of her case came just as China’s first SARS case, the television producer, left the same Guangzhou hospital after being pronounced recovered.

Hospital president Tang Xiaoping said that he couldn’t confirm reports that the waitress worked at a restaurant that served wild game. Scientists say the virus might have begun in wild animals, then jumped to humans.

“Whether she handled animals, I’m not clear,” Tang told reporters.

Fever checks
China’s central government, trying to prevent a new epidemic, ordered temperature checks on passengers at railway stations across the country. Those with a fever over 100.5 degrees were forbidden to board trains.

In Shanghai, the city’s railway station opened a special arrival channel to check the temperatures of passengers arriving aboard trains from Guangzhou, the Shanghai Youth Daily reported Friday.

The city also has launched a wide-ranging “destroy four pests,” campaign targeting rats and bugs in older housing communities. Poisoned apples, watermelon seeds, roast duck and other snacks have been placed in food shops, restaurants and convenience stores to lure rodents to their demises, it said.

In Guangzhou, red banners fluttering in the streets called for better cleanliness. In language that echoed China’s political campaigns of the 1950s, they declared: “Everybody work together. Do more to improve hygiene. Exterminate the four dangers. Lift the level of public health.”

But some were dismayed at the mass slaughter of civets before experts say definitely whether the virus came from them.

“There is only one SARS case in Guangzhou city, so why must there be such a heavy reaction that affects the whole population?” said Sun Jianwu, owner of a chain of pet supply stores. He decried government efforts to kill civets and rats as “unscientific” measures.