In late 2002 Hong Kong media began to report on panic buying of rice vinegar in Guangdong, where a pneumonia-like illness had been spreading. Public anxiety soon spilled over the border, and Hongkongers started stocking up on the vinegar too (there were claims that fumigating a room with it could kill germs).
The territory’s health authorities were in the dark about the disease said to be triggering the panic. They telephoned their counterparts in Guangdong. After their calls went unanswered, Hong Kong officials approached Beijing instead. On the following day, the Guangzhou Bureau of Health held a press conference, admitting that the southern Chinese city had been hit by an infectious pneumonia now known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). It had been spreading for more than a month and the outbreak would go on to claim 299 lives in Hong Kong alone.
Chinese authorities have since vowed to stick to World Health Organisation protocols for the timely communication about threatening diseases. And as such, a very short report by Xinhua is putting medicial experts on high alert.
For the two months to October 21, Xinhua said 8,672 individuals have travelled to Guangdong from Ebola-hit parts of West Africa. Of this number, 5,437 “have been released from medical supervision”. The article – consisting of just 126 Chinese characters and figures – didn’t elaborate on what was meant by the term. However, it did report that 43 individuals had tested negative for the deadly virus.
More worryingly, Xinhua’s Japanese website went on to report that 43 people were found to be “positive” in Guangdong, according to the Hong Kong Economic Journal. Fortunately, it turned out the Japanese report had been mistranslated and it was removed less than five minutes after its release.
Still, health authorities and the media have cast a watchful eye over Guangdong since the Ebola outbreak began in February (see WiC256). Not only has the province featured as ground zero for outbreaks of disease like SARS and bird flu in the past, its capital Guangzhou is also home to at least 15,000 Africans. That number doesn’t include undocumented arrivals and overstayers, says the China Daily, who speculates that the real figure could be 15 times higher.
The Chinese authorities are faced with a delicate task: ensuring the protection of the local population without offending the sensibilities of the African countries whose citizens use Guangzhou as the gateway to China (the city has more than 190 flights a month from Africa).
Last week a new set of precautionary measures were announced. All incoming visitors from Ebola-affected areas will receive a healthcare package including a thermometer, a local map and a free mobile phone with local SIM card.
People given phones must keep them turned on for the following 21 days so that they can be contacted in emergencies. Visitors who violate these rules, the People’s Daily reported, will face legal action.
The Guangzhou No.8 People’s Hospital, a designated centre for fighting Ebola, has increased its fleet of ambulances, medical equipment and masks to respond to potential cases, the media also reports. Medical workers at the hospital have also received special training for handling the virus.
The Financial Times has suggested that some African traders have been denied entry to the city’s recent Canton Trade Fair. Yiwu, another popular destination for African traders, has also upped its guard. But Gao Fu, vice director of the China Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, told the newspaper that if the epidemic continues, it is “just a matter of time” before China sees its first Ebola case.
So far the World Health Organisation has welcomed the precautionary measures, suggesting that the chances of a serious outbreak of Ebola in China are low.
“China took quick steps to strengthen its surveillance and screening systems at airports… These measures are in line with the declaration by the WHO on Ebola,” the health body told the Global Times.
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