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China reports second suspected SARS case

China reported a second suspected case of SARS on Thursday.
Disinfecting animal cages in Guangzhou
A worker sprays disinfectant on a cage full of dogs Wednesday at a food market in Guangzhou, the capital of China's Guangdong province.Kin Cheung / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

SARS-wary southern China mobilized a mass cleanup effort Thursday, sweeping streets, slaughtering more civets and targeting the “four dangers” — rats, roaches, flies and mosquitoes — in its attack on creatures it suspects of carrying the virus.

The push toward a more pristine Guangdong province came the same day the country’s first SARS patient of the season was released from the hospital — and, minutes later, a waitress in the provincial capital of Guangzhou was pegged as the second suspected case.

Thursday’s main cleanup took place at Guangzhou’s upscale Dongshan Market, where well-heeled consumers can choose from among 20 types of rice and 30 varieties of soy sauce.

Hundreds of residents took up brooms to scour the already tidy streets as brigades of government journalists snapped pictures. But where the masses once swept in unison, the modern-day workers had to pause every time their cell phones rang.

'Exterminate the four dangers'
“Everybody work together. Do more to improve hygiene. Exterminate the four dangers. Lift the level of public health,” proclaim 1950s-style slogans on red banners around town. They seem especially incongruent in today’s Guangzhou, one of China’s most modern and prosperous cities.

Authorities said Thursday that a waitress in Guangzhou could be China’s second SARS patient since the disease was pronounced under control in July. The announcement came just as the first patient — also in Guangzhou — was pronounced recovered and allowed to go home after three weeks in the hospital.

The 20-year-old waitress sought treatment for a fever on Dec. 31 and, after diagnosed with “suspected SARS,” has now been quarantined at the No. 8 People’s Hospital, state media said.

The hospital’s president, Tang Xiaoping, who had called a news conference to herald the good news about Case No. 1’s release, instead found himself fending off questions about Case No. 2. Reporters wanted to know if it was true she worked in a wild game restaurant — in light of the city’s campaign to kill 10,000 civet cats by Saturday on unconfirmed fears that they can spread SARS to humans.

“All I can say is that she is a waitress at a restaurant. Whether she handled animals, I’m not clear,” Tang said.

Temperature checks ordered at railway stations
On Tuesday, the 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 are forbidden to board trains.

In Guangdong, civet killings continued. Experts say the weasel-like creature, a delicacy in southern China, might harbor the SARS virus that infects humans, and officials in Guangdong decided that was enough evidence to sign a death warrant for all of them. Animal wranglers have been drowning and electrocuting them by the thousands, boiling their remains into mist.

Next up, authorities want to mobilize all Guangzhou to exterminate rats, cockroaches, flies, and mosquitoes — dubbed “the four dangers” — which they also consider a SARS threat.

Last year, Guangdong was labeled the birthplace of severe acute respiratory syndrome, the flu-like illness that panicked a continent and killed 774 people worldwide before subsiding in July.

Now that SARS is back — right where it began, albeit far less threatening for the moment — many are taking the developments in stride. Last year, when rumors of an unnamed virus started circulating, panic buying ensued.

Chinese government overreacting?
“I’m definitely not worried about SARS, because the government’s policies are all sound and the government has such strength,” said a restaurant worker who gave only her surname, Ye.

Others are dismayed at what they see as literal overkill.

“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.

“Ordinary people shouldn’t be worried about SARS,” Sun said. “They should be worried about officials who ignore science.”

China drew heavy criticism last year for being slow to react to SARS when it first emerged and initially refusing to release information about its outbreak. This time, it is reacting quickly — and horrifying some with its civet slaughter.

“I don’t agree with the killing of civet cats,” said Tina Tai, program coordinator with American Chamber of Commerce in Guangdong. “The government should care about the public opinion.”

Sun, the pet-supply chain owner, thinks Guangdong should make its peace with SARS and move on.

“If you understand a disease you can control it and use good prevention,” he said. “We treat pets here, but we can’t guarantee that a pet won’t get sick. It’s the same with people.”