- The Washington Times - Monday, January 5, 2004

BEIJING — China confirmed yesterday its first case of SARS since the epidemic was declared over in July as it shut down wildlife markets and prepared to slaughter animals believed to be the source of the deadly virus.

The measures elicited calls for caution from international doctors concerned about safety measures and destruction of medical evidence.

The decision to kill up to 10,000 civet cats and related specialty-food creatures in the wildlife markets of the southern province of Guangdong came as China confirmed after two weeks of tests that a patient was suffering from SARS. The animals are suspected of being carriers of severe acute respiratory syndrome virus.

Adding to Asia’s unease over SARS, a husband and wife in the Philippines who fell ill after returning from Hong Kong were placed in isolation, and test results are awaited. And Hong Kong stepped up health surveillance at border checkpoints with mainland China.

The World Health Organization, upgrading the case of an ailing 32-year-old Guangdong television producer from “suspected” to a definite diagnosis of SARS, urged calm.

It said China, which became a travel pariah during the first outbreak last year, was safe.

“We have to be very clear about it: It does not mean that one case can lead to a public health threat,” said Dr. Henk Bekedam, the WHO representative for China. But the national government warned its citizens: “Be vigilant.”

China’s leadership, criticized for a sluggish response to the debut of SARS last year, lurched in the other direction with an extraordinary, aggressive decision: to eradicate civets from Guangdong’s wildlife markets, where they are sold as delicacies and are a strong part of the local economy.

“We will take resolute measures to close all the wildlife markets in Guangdong and to kill the civet cats,” said Feng Liuxiang, vice director of the Guangdong health department.

Zhong Nanshan, director of the Guangzhou Institute of Respiratory Diseases, said species related to civets also will be killed, including raccoon dogs, ferret badgers, hog badgers and Eurasian badgers.

The slaughter will be completed by Saturday, the government said.

Guangdong’s wildlife markets were ordered closed yesterday, and the provincial Forestry Department put 2,030 presumably doomed civet cats in quarantine.

The WHO is less definitive about civet-SARS links. One of its animal experts, Dr. Jeffrey Gilbert, emphasized that while the weasel-like mammals have been “implicated” in the disease’s possible transfer from animals to humans, definitive proof is elusive.

He said the “radical step” of mass slaughter must be taken under controlled conditions to avoid contamination of places or people, which could spread SARS. Any reckless cull could eliminate clues to the illness’s “animal reservoir,” he added.

SARS, which first broke out in Guangdong in November 2002, infected more than 8,000 people and killed 774 worldwide.

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