Baby train in China rumbles on

By Doug Young

THEY nervously packed facemasks and antiseptic handwash along with the routine baby wipes, milk bottles and diapers. 

But even an outbreak of a deadly flu-like virus in southern China has failed to derail a baby adoption train drawing thousands of Western couples each year to Guangdong province where Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) first appeared. 

On this rainy Wednesday, the lobby in Guangzhou’s White Swan Hotel, the provincial capital’s primary roost for adopting couples from the United States, is full of 100 proud parents and noisy babies preparing for trips to the US consulate and, eventually, back home. 

New parents said they had heard about SARS before they made the journey to southern China’s biggest city, some 30km from where the first case was reported. 

But after waiting one to two years to pick up their children, there was little question of what to do for those at the White Swan. 

“We were a little concerned, but once we knew we had this daughter waiting there was nothing that was going to stop us,” said Michael Fear of Springfield, Illinois, with his wife, two biological daughters and newly adopted Karly, now 17 months. 

Fear and other parents said they were taking precautions at the urging of friends, family members and the US consulate. 

They now wash their hands frequently and try to avoid crowded places. They also brought facemasks, ubiquitous in Hong Kong but rare on the streets of Guangzhou, where the government says cases have dropped since a peak in February. 

“When we first got off the plane here, people had their masks on, but we haven’t been wearing them since,’’ said Shelley McCullough of San Antonio, Texas. 

Couples from the US adopted 6,000 babies from China last year, up from 4,800 in 2001, using Guangzhou as a base because all adoptions are handled by the consulate there. 

Several couples said the consulate handed out SARS prevention literature and asked citizens if they had any symptoms of the disease. 

Mostly, officials tell Americans they believe that SARS is under control in Guangdong. 

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention set out special guidelines on its website for adopting parents last week, which warns of a travel advisory against visiting Guangdong. 

“If, however, you are so close to completing the adoption process that delay is not feasible or desirable and you decide to go ahead with your travel to an area with SARS, please keep the following guidelines in mind,” it said. 

It goes on to recommend health travel kits with thermometers, surgical masks, disposable gloves and alcohol-based handwash. 

The outbreak has caused some delays in the adoption process but had not affected the broader business, said Wendy Wu, a China-based staffer with Children’s Hope International – one of the many agencies which use the White Swan as its base. 

Wu said Children’s Hope handled about 250 Chinese adoptions a year and had five couples now staying at the hotel. 

“I tell them don’t go to public places. But there’s nothing else special. I just tell them to take care of themselves,” Wu says, as her couples gather round for a trip to the consulate. 

A chorus of wails breaks out as another group of new parents from a different agency deposit their babies, about a dozen in all, on a cherry wood palanquin for a group photo. 

Some said they might have done things differently had they known how serious the disease would become and how quickly it was spreading in Hong Kong, where more than 900 people have been infected. 

McCullough said she and husband Bob might not have brought their four-year-old daughter Connally along when they came for Beverly, now 14 months, and perhaps would have avoided travelling through Hong Kong. 

“We got here on March 25,” she said. 

“It was in the news a little at that time, but the Hong Kong situation wasn’t as bad.” 

Others said they would isolate themselves for the disease’s incubation period of up to two weeks after returning to the United States. 

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