GUANGZHOU: Health workers began drowning and incinerating thousands of civet cats in southern China yesterday over fears they carry a new strain of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) but international experts worried the cull may only add to the danger.
The slaughter of caged civets in wild animal markets in Guangdong province began on Monday when China announced the first case of SARS since a world epidemic was declared beaten in July.
Chinese health authorities said a gene sample from the new SARS patient a 32-year-old television producer in Guangdong resembled that of a coronavirus found in civets, a local delicacy.
State media reported the patient has recovered and will be discharged tomorrow. .
In Hong Kong, researchers said recent genetic studies detected changes in the SARS virus isolated from civets that suggest it may jump more easily to humans.
Health inspectors wearing surgical masks and carrying walkie-talkies patrolled the vast Xinyuan Bird and Livestock Comprehensive Market on the outskirts of Guangzhou, the Guangdong provincial capital, and local officials said 320 civet cats and other banned exotic animals had been seized.
The civets are drowned in chemical disinfectant and their carcasses hauled away in huge metal containers for incineration.
Guangdong authorities have given a Saturday deadline for the slaughter of some 10,000 of the animals.
World Health Organisation officials have expressed concern that if the killing is not handled carefully, it could create a risk by exposing humans to contaminated blood.
They also worry that by destroying the civets, medical researchers will lose vital evidence to help them understand how mutations in the SARS virus may be occurring.
Other experts warned the cull was not a full solution.
The civet cat is only one of the origins of the virus, said Hon Kam-lun, an assistant medical professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Some other animals also carry the virus. You can't kill them all. The virus won't be exterminated.
Most Chinese urban residents shrugged off the danger, in stark contrast to the panic that gripped cities when SARS first appeared last year.
The calm reaction underlines the hard lessons learned by China's Communist government last year, when it came under heavy international criticism for trying to cover up the epidemic, and a renewed public trust it now enjoys on SARS.
There were fears on Monday that SARS may be spreading around Asia after the Philippines announced that a women who had worked as a maid in Hong Kong might have contracted the disease.
The woman, who came down with SARS-like symptoms during Christmas home leave, has no more fever, a significant sign that she is on the road to recovery, Health Secretary Manuel Dayrit said.
However, 38 other people who have had contact with the maid are now in quarantine as a precaution, Dayrit said in a written statement.
Those include her husband, their three children, her doctor, hospital staff and members of her local community. Reuters
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