Chinese worried that winter will bring back outbreaks of SARS

Sunday, November 16, 2003

BEIJING -- Six months ago, the newly opened Chengdu Snacks was one of thousands of businesses forced to shut down as the streets of Beijing emptied and people stayed home in fear of SARS. The eatery reopened after a month, but business hasn't been the same.

Though lunchtime is packed with people slurping spicy noodles and snagging dumplings from bamboo steamers, customers are slowly vanishing again amid fears that SARS -- which first appeared in southern China last Nov. 16 -- could resurface with the cold weather.

"People think SARS is on the way back, so they're eating at home," said Yi Binglong, 28, who moved to the capital from China's southwest to open Chengdu Snacks. "In September and October, there would be customers through the afternoon. Now they disappear after lunch."

Yi isn't the only one on tenterhooks.

"It all feels a bit funny at the moment, just this waiting to see what will happen," said Julie Hall, the SARS team leader at the World Health Organization's Beijing office.

The Chinese government, which was harshly criticized both at home and abroad for withholding news of the SARS outbreak in its early months, has unleashed a stream of rhetoric aimed at persuading the masses that improved surveillance and reporting can avoid another epidemic.

Taking active measures

This month, Vice Premier Wu Yi, who is also health minister, said China is "capable of preventing and controlling a resurgence of SARS."

A Chinese scientist at the forefront of SARS research was more adamant. "With these active measures, I believe there will not be an outbreak of SARS this winter," Professor Zhong Nanshan was quoted as saying on the Web site of People's Daily, the Communist Party newspaper.

When the first known human case of severe acute respiratory syndrome occurred in southern China's Guangdong province a year ago, no one noticed; SARS had never been seen before and had yet to be named. It was only later that researchers tracked down what is believed to be that first victim.

By early spring, cases were popping up around the globe, causing mass panic. In all, 774 people died and more than 8,000 were sickened, according to WHO.

Mainland China accounted for more than half the cases and deaths but kept its figures secret until April, when the government -- under pressure from the international community -- vowed to be more open and aggressive.

Sweeping, sometimes draconian measures were taken, especially in Beijing, the hardest-hit area in the world. Mass temperature-taking began. Coughers were shunned, spitters condemned. Officials ordered schools, movie theaters and restaurants closed. They sealed hospitals and quarantined thousands of people at home.

The central government and local authorities have reactivated some of those measures, beefed up others and instituted new ones.

In September, the Ministry of Health revived its nationwide system of daily reports on SARS cases. So far, the tally of suspected or confirmed cases has remained at zero.

A new computerized reporting system went into effect in early November, with plans to have all national, provincial and county hospitals linked.

Chinese cities, meanwhile, have started checking travelers for fever again. The port city of Tianjin, east of Beijing, reports any traveler with a temperature above 100 degrees. In Urumqi, in the far west, people with temperatures above 99.5 degrees are not allowed on public buses.

Scientific knowledge about SARS remains elusive. The disease's origin remains unknown, no cure has been found, and WHO says a vaccine is at least two years away.

Researchers believe people may have gotten the virus from animals that were infected by another, still mysterious disease, but it's still unclear how the sickness jumps from animals to people. Raccoon-dogs, ferret badgers and civet cats in southern China have been found harboring a germ almost identical to SARS.

WHO's Hall said mobilizing against a disease that may or may not return has been an unusual challenge.

"People feel like they've learned from the last time," she said. "But everyone just feels a tiny bit jittery, a tiny bit jumpy. That's the worry: You get one case and all this pent-up energy just explodes in panic. We really hope that's not the case."

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