China Struggling With Public Health

Oh My News
David Kootnikoff, Saturday, June 17, 2006

Confirms 19th bird flu victim

Hong Kong is taking no chances these days when it comes to public health and Mainland China. The territory banned all Mainland poultry for three weeks beginning Friday after China confirmed its 19th case of human bird flu, bringing to a halt the 20,000 live chickens that are imported into Hong Kong daily.

This is the second such ban since March when a man died in Guangdong Province from the H5N1 virus. Hong Kong Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food York Chow said Friday, "We have a suspicion...that the virus might be more virulent," acknowledging that it may have mutated into a strain enabling it to strike all year.

The case appears to be an anomaly because it has occurred during the warmer season and not during the colder months when it has previously struck.

The patient is a 31-year-old truck driver from Anliang, near Shenzhen across the border on the Mainland, 40-minutes from central Hong Kong. He reportedly did not have any direct contact with live poultry. Officials say he may have contracted the virus through eating a chicken purchased at a wet market near his home two weeks ago. Wet markets are traditionally popular among Chinese for their daily food purchases.

The Hong Kong Poultry Wholesalers and Retailers Association expressed its concern over the ban, but said the traders have no alternative but to accept the situation. Poultry wholesalers gathered at government offices in Hong Kong Friday demanding government compensation for their losses.

Thomas Abraham, author of "Twenty-First Century Plague: the Story of SARS," writes, "It is only a matter of time before the avian influenza virus picks up the genetic refinements that would allow it to pass easily from human to human. Once that happens, the world will face an epidemic that could, in a worst case, outstrip the HIV/AIDS epidemic in its deadly impact."

Politics or Health?

Call it once bitten, twice shy, but following the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) debacle Hong Kong officials appear to have learned to act first and ask questions later.

In late 2002, SARS also emerged just across the border from Hong Kong in Guangdong before it was officially reported. It soon spread throughout the city and beyond, eventually claiming almost 800 lives worldwide and infecting more than 8000 people from over 30 countries.

At the time, China tried to cover-up the seriousness of the outbreak for political reasons, jeopardizing world health in the process. Authorities concealed cases to save the Communist Party embarrassment and ensure a smooth transition of power from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao in March of 2003.

Their negligence fomented the spread of the disease and obstructed scientific analysis until one doctor -- Jiang Yanyong -- blew the whistle and the Western press publicized the cover-up. While this high-profile case led to the resignation of some officials, including the mayor of Beijing and the Minister of Public Health, today much reform is still needed.

In fact, Jiang was arrested in 2004 and spent 45 days in military custody, supposedly for urging state officials to admit that the Tiananmen Square crackdown was wrong. However, immediately after Jiang revealed the SARS cover-up in 2003 he was placed under government surveillance, suggesting it was this disclosure that was the real threat.

This incident falls into an all too familiar pattern of the Chinese government silencing legitimate dissent, regardless if it serves the public interest. As the SARS crisis illustrated, if politics are allowed to take precedence over health the ramifications could engulf the entire region and beyond.

In a related issue, China is currently struggling to control its HIV/AIDS problem and the under reporting of cases has been an ongoing concern in dealing with the disease. The Chinese government along with the WHO and UNAIDS, estimates that 650,000 people are living with HIV in China, including about 75,000 AIDS patients. If reforms are not forthcoming, UNAIDS and other organizations have estimated that by 2010 there could be an epidemic with between 10 and 20 million HIV positive Chinese, endangering national development and security, both personal and social.

The social costs will undoubtedly spill over to other regions. This past April it emerged that a hospital in Shenzhen was providing plastic surgery, specifically breast implants, using the non-medical substance hydrophilic polyacrylamide gel, or PAAG, which is banned in the U.S.

The Hong Kong Society of Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgery received 53 complaints about PAAG over the past two years. Of these, 90 percent of the procedures were reportedly carried out on the mainland. At least six women in Hong Kong who received PAAG implants have had their breasts partly or completely removed. Fifty-three women sought medical help because of intense pain and suffering after receiving the implants. The Hong Kong government has since decided to ban the substance.

Also in April, Greenpeace revealed another health concern impacting Hong Kong from China. At the time, the territory was being inundated with Mainland produce containing banned and illegal pesticides. Thirty percent of the samples examined from two prominent Hong Kong supermarket chains exceeded international standards and lindane, a chemical banned in Hong Kong and formally used to kill lice, was also found.

Earlier this week, Greenpeace made a similar discovery of excessive levels in produce sold in various Guangdong stores. While Hong Kong officials have committed themselves to strengthening their inspections of imported produce, Mainland consumers remain victims. Indeed, some of the pesticide levels exceeded China's own standards, pointing to the ongoing problem with the Mainland's inability to enforce its own laws.

These incidents suggest that three years after the SARS crisis China is still struggling to cope with basic public health issues. As the country's rampant economic growth continues to collide with a dysfunctional infrastructure, not only China, but the rest of the world could find the social costs too much to pay.