The World of Chinese - - Contents - BY DAVID DAWSON

Are the days of buy­ing your own chicken to take home, pluck and eat com­ing to an end? Cer­tainly if the gov­ern­ment has its way— live mar­kets are the ground zero of deadly avian flu, and health in­spec­tors are in­tent on stamp­ing out this pop­u­lar but un­san­i­tary Asian cus­tom. But there'll al­ways be some cus­tomers who cry foul…


“Do you have any chick­ens out back?”

As code phrases go, it was not par­tic­u­larly sub­tle. Fol­low­ing a tip from some­one who knew a guy, we were at­tempt­ing to buy a live bird in a neigh­bor­hood in the south­ern part of Beijing. Amid the wind­ing hu­tong were sev­eral stalls that had pre­vi­ously sold live chick­ens, usu­ally un­der the cover of sell­ing other fresh meat, but by TWOC’S visit in late March, th­ese side busi­nesses had dis­ap­peared, with ven­dors cagey to dis­cuss when they’ll re­turn.

The rea­son is what’s al­ready killed 79 peo­ple and sick­ened 192 in China, in Jan­uary alone: De­cem­ber to April is the peak sea­son for deadly avian flu. Ac­cord­ing to the WHO, there were 38 deaths in Jan­uary 2015, and just five the fol­low­ing year. This year’s spike has there­fore caused alarm among main­land health or­ga­ni­za­tions.

Live mar­kets are at the nexus of myr­iad bird flu-re­lated risks. At the ba­sic level, avian in­fluenza is trans­mit­ted from live or un­cooked bird car­casses, but poor san­i­ta­tion makes trans­mis­sion of the virus much eas­ier. All are preva­lent at mar­kets. Then there is the con­cern that, while bird flu isn’t cur­rently ca­pa­ble of hu­man-to-hu­man trans­mis­sion, mu­ta­tions could make this pos­si­ble in the fu­ture—and mu­ta­tions most com­monly oc­cur when va­ri­eties of a species are cooped up to­gether in un­san­i­tary con­di­tions.

Guan Yi was the ex­pert re­spon­si­ble for iden­ti­fy­ing the source of China’s deadly SARS (se­vere acute res­pi­ra­tory syn­drome) out­break in 2003, and is now rac­ing to re­search new viruses as lead re­searcher at the State Key Lab­o­ra­tory of Emerg­ing In­fec­tious Dis­eases and the Cen­ter of

In­fluenza Re­search at Hong Kong Univer­sity. The ori­gin of the SARS virus was traced back to live mar­kets, so pro­gress­ing into bird flu re­search was a log­i­cal step.

“We’re try­ing our best, but we still can’t con­trol this virus [bird flu],” Guan re­cently told NPR. “It’s too late for us to erad­i­cate it.” Guan said avian flu had shown a propen­sity for mu­ta­tion, warn­ing, “This virus poses the great­est threat to hu­man­ity than any other in the past 100 years.”

His time pe­riod in­cludes, by a whisker, the 1918 out­break of Span­ish Flu which killed at least 20 mil­lion. Guan sug­gested that im­proved col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween gov­ern­ments and agen­cies would be key to stop­ping any fu­ture out­break.

This ini­tial re­sponse to SARS was an ul­ti­mately botched at­tempt to sup­press news of the epi­demic, an at­ti­tude that proved greatly dam­ag­ing to the gov­ern­ment’s cred­i­bil­ity in tack­ling the threat of air­borne bird flu.

Chi­nese gov­ern­ments at the lo­cal and pro­vin­cial level have been lately mov­ing to shut down un­reg­u­lated mar­kets, with patch­work bans in place across the coun­try, but ef­fec­tive­ness varies. This is due, in part, to the fond­ness that many Chi­nese have for fresh meat. “De­spite the wide­spread avail­abil­ity of af­ford­able re­frig­er­a­tion, many Asian peo­ple pre­fer live an­i­mals for fresh pro­duce,” noted med­i­cal jour­nal The Lancet in 2004, a year af­ter SARS. It’s not just a mat­ter of taste but trust—in a sup­ply chain suf­fused with un­reg­u­lated ad­di­tives from growth hor­mones to steroids, and no­to­ri­ous for scan­dals in­volv­ing fake or tainted meat, buy­ing your meat while it’s still flap­ping is per­ceived as a safe­guard.

Au­thor­i­ties dis­agree and mar­ket crack­downs are fre­quent—if not nec­es­sar­ily ef­fec­tive. Last Novem­ber, Beijing res­i­dents were baf­fled by the overnight dis­ap­pear­ance of live fresh­wa­ter fish from many su­per­mar­kets, and concerns mounted when au­thor­i­ties weren’t forth­com­ing with ex­pla­na­tions. “If there was noth­ing wrong with the fish, they wouldn’t have cleared them out,” a 73-year-old re­tiree, Zhu Lan­rong, told The New York Times. “In the end, the dif­fer­ent in­ter­pre­ta­tions from var­i­ous mem­bers of the pub­lic, the ru­mors and doubts that abound, are all signs of a lack of psy­cho­log­i­cal se­cu­rity,” the Beijing News de­clared.

Guangzhou is among sev­eral cities with a high num­ber of avian flu in­fec­tions and deaths, de­spite ex­ten­sive bans on live mar­kets. In Fe­bru­ary, the South China Morn­ing Post re­ported that a ded­i­cated group of lo­cals were con­tin­u­ing to buy meat from live mar­kets, un­de­terred by the risks. “Guangzhou has been try­ing to sort out its rub­bish prob­lem for the past seven years and has failed mis­er­ably,” Zhang Yi told the pub­li­ca­tion. “They can’t ban live chick­ens.”

In the same month, the Guangzhou Cen­ter for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion warned that, de­spite the culling of around 175,000 birds over win­ter, in­fected birds were present at 30 per­cent of the city’s mar­kets.

Ni Daxin, deputy di­rec­tor of the cen­ter’s emer­gency re­sponse de­part­ment, told me­dia that “most of the hu­man cases in­volve con­tact with wild birds or live poul­try… sur­veil­lance at chicken farms and live poul­try mar­kets sug­gests that birds in­fected with H7N9 show no symp­toms, but they can pass the virus to hu­mans via con­tact.”

Gov­ern­ment re­ports sug­gested that clos­ing Guangzhou’s live mar­kets for three days helped re­duce spread of the virus by 60 per­cent, but an­other sur­vey found just half of Guangzhou res­i­dents be­lieved the clo­sures would help ease the spread of bird flu.

“Sure, I used to have live chick­ens, but not any more, the in­spec­tions are get­ting more and more rig­or­ous,” our mer­chant in the Beijing mar­ket tells us. “I don’t know when they’ll be back.” It doesn’t seem, though, like he’s given up hope. On a blackboard lean­ing against the door of the shop, the sin­gle char­ac­ter for “chicken” is still enig­mat­i­cally scrawled, next to a sign ad­ver­tis­ing the shop’s other source of rev­enue in the mean­time: live fish.

A worker in­spects the flock for the plumpest chick­ens at a mar­ket in Qiong­hai, Hainan prov­ince

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