Millions ushered in the Chinese New Year, the Year of the Monkey, on Thursday with feasts that avoided chicken or other exotic meat as the twin threats of bird flu and SARS cast a pall over the holiday mood across Asia.
“The golden monkey presents us with fortune; our sacred provinces welcome spring,” said the Beijing Youth Daily, one of the few of the capital city’s dozens of newspapers that published abbreviated editions on the Lunar New Year’s first morning.
Yet as thousands took to the the road for traditional family reunions or vacations during the Lunar New Year period, health authorities in China, Vietnam, and other countries were on high alert to prevent the spread of the two dreaded viruses that have stirred a worldwide scare.
From Beijing to Singapore, businesses and government offices closed for Spring Festival. Indonesia marked the Chinese New Year as a public holiday for only the second time. Tightly controlled Singapore permitted the cacophony of firecrackers at street level for the first time in more than 30 years.
The torch-passing from sheep to monkey under the Chinese astrological calendar was seen as an auspicious event, not only in traditional culture but in modern financial practicality. It coincides with an announcement that the economy grew 9.1 percent last year, and a hopeful tone prevailed.
However, the fresh outbreak of SARS in southern China, which has reported three confirmed cases so far this winter, and the bird flu that has ravaged poultry farms in Vietnam, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, have once again tended to cast Asia, with its squalid animal markets and farms, as a harbinger of deadly new diseases.
Viruses share symptoms
The avian influenza strain A causing the bird flu and the coronavirus causing severe acute respiratory syndrome or SARS have staged simultaneous attacks on Asia causing the World Health Organization (WHO) to hurriedly dispatch experts to assist beleaguered health authorities.
Both the bird flu and SARS cause similar human symptoms of fever, dry cough, and pneumonia.
So far, only Vietnam has reported human fatalities as a result of the bird flu. Five deaths out of a suspected thirteen deaths have been confirmed by WHO as a result of the bird flu. There are an additional 18 suspected bird flu cases in hospitals, among the victims are children aged one to 14.
According to WHO, the Influenza A confirmed to have caused the deaths is the same virus found in sick chickens in the south of the country and also the same strain of bird flu that killed six people in 1997 in Hong Kong, where its entire stock of more than a million chickens and ducks were subsequently slaughtered.
The Vietnamese authorities ordered the slaughter of all chickens in the 12 regions currently grappling with the bird flu epidemic.
Some two million chickens have died due to culling or disease, mostly in southern Vietnam.
Bird flu has spread to other Asian nations
In South Korea, bird flu has reappeared recently after hitting 15 areas nationwide last month, despite a cull of 1.8 million chickens and ducks.
Japan has been alarmed by its first outbreak of the disease in 80 years, and has imposed emergency measures to contain it, resulting in the mass slaughter of some 35,000 chickens in a western prefecture.
A milder strain of the virus has been detected in Taiwan, which has killed some 50,000 chickens in the past week. There is some suspicion in Taiwan that its outbreak of bird flu was traced to duck meat smuggled from the Chinese mainland.
Chinese authorities, already grappling with resurgent SARS cases, deny that the country harbors the bird flu virus, and have imposed a complete ban on all poultry imports from Vietnam, Japan and South Korea.
The reports of new SARS cases in Guangzhou, capital of the southern province of Guangdong, have generated fears of a re-enactment of last year's SARS outbreak, which also first emerged in the same province.
That outbreak sickened more than 8,000 and killed 774 people worldwide, of which 349 deaths were in China.
As only three new cases have been reported so far, with no fatalities, such fears have seemingly abated, leading some medical experts to suspect that the coronavirus may have mutated into a milder strain.
"SARS is not a significant public health threat in China at the moment," WHO spokesman in Beijing Roy Wadia told NBC News recently.
He urged the Chinese authorities, however, to maintain "high alert" to insure that the surveillance and other measures are "working and capable" of containing any new outbreak.
Greater fears over bird flu
Greater attention appears to be shifting to the bird flu battle in Vietnam, where the eight WHO experts have recently been reinforced with a six-person team from the United States, including three epidemiologists from Atlanta's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While the U.N. health agency said there is still no evidence of human-to-human transmission, as all the human infections are believed to have been caused by contact with sick birds, experts have warned of dire consequences if the bird flu virus mutates, resulting in a new, deadly disease that could sweep across the world from Asia.
"It's a bigger potential problem than SARS because we don't have any defenses against the disease," warned Peter Cordingley, WHO regional coordinator in Manila. Cordingley added that there could a big international health crisis if the virus latches on to a human influenza virus or develops the ability to spread through human contacts.
The potential threat of avian flu is growing in terms of numbers, according to Bob Deitz, WHO spokesman in Hanoi, who spoke to NBC News. "It's quite dangerous mainly because of the geographic spread, from Japan, to South Korea down to Vietnam, and thus there is a greater opportunity for the virus to spread itself and infect humans," said Deitz.
While the number of human cases is pretty low, he also said: "We are not sure if we are seeing all the cases. We arenot predicting a storm and we don't know how large the storm will be, but the potential of the virus infecting humans is enough cause for grave concern."
Vietnam's bird flu scare has already spilled into neighboring Thailand, a major poultry exporter, where chicken sales have plummeted although not a single bird flu case has been discovered in the country.
Thai exporters have offered a payment of $25,000 for any death caused by eating Thai chicken. To ease public fears, the Thai prime minister even ordered chicken feast for the lunch menu of a recent Cabinet meeting.
Meanwhile, the few reported SARS cases have also caused a food scare, especially in southern China where exotic wild animals, believed to boost vital human functions, have traditionally been considered delicacies for holiday feasting.
The Guangdong authorities have ordered the mass killing of 10,000 masked palm civet cats, blamed to be the carrier of the SARS virus. The result is the virtual decimation of Guangdong's once-thriving wild-animal market.
While the WHO raised some reservations about the civet cat extermination campaign, its subsequent investigation for the first time did turn out "very good evidence" to suggest that the wild animals play a role in SARS.
Traces of the SARS virus were detected in the civet cat cages of the restaurant where one confirmed SARS patient worked. Traces were also found on swabs taken from Guangzhou's largest live-animal market.
"I think there is very good evidence to think animals are the reservoir and the way the disease gets started," WHO team leader Dr. Robert Breiman said in one press conference. He added, "We still don't know what role the civet cats play in spreading the virus."
Travelers will closely monitored for possblie SARS
China's 1.3 billion people are expected travel extensively during the month-long Lunar New Year holiday season. All travelers are to be scrutinized "to prevent the possible spread of the disease", according to a directive by China's highest-ranking woman official Vice-Premier Wu Yi.
Temperature scanners are already busy at work in major airports and railway stations, and those with fever higher than 100.5 Fahrenheit will be barred from getting on board.
"We have cancelled all plans to travel to Guangzhou," said one Beijing official who requested anonymity. "And if some Guangzhou officials would like to travel to Beijing, we will refuse to receive them.