China orders cull of thousands of cats as Sars virus returns

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The Independent Online

Sars is back. The first new case since last year's lethal outbreak was declared over in July was confirmed yesterday in a 32-year-old television producer in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou.

The discovery was announced by the World Health Organisation and the Chinese Ministry of Health following tests in three internationally recognised laboratories. It triggered fears across Asia that the pneumonia-like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome might sweep the continent, and the world, again.

China ordered a cull of 10,000 civet cats and related wildlife bred as delicacies for the table, after tests suggested they could be the source of the infection. But the WHO warned that reckless culling could spread the disease as well as eliminating evidence of its source.

Stringent checks have been imposed across the region. In the Philippines, officials isolated a woman in a Manila hospital when she developed a fever after flying from Hong Kong. They also quarantined her husband when his temperature rose. Doctors said it would take two or three days to determine whether the couple had the disease.

In Malaysia, health officials ruled out the illness in the case of a 31-year-old woman in hospital with a fever after visiting southern China. Taiwan has also cleared a suspected case.

The case in Guangzhou is the first since last year's outbreak barring a few incidents in which researchers working with the virus were infected.

The disease is thought to have originated in November 2002 in a village near the city and spread in February to Hong Kong, an international air transport hub two hours away by train. From there, it was transmitted round the world.

By the time it had burnt itself out in July, Sars had infected 8,098 people and killed 774 in 27 countries, according to the WHO, as well as causing near financial catastrophe for businesses in the Far East, especially airlines and hotels.

The latest victim has been in hospital since 20 December, but initial tests proved inconclusive. At the request of the WHO, the Chinese authorities sent samples to two laboratories in Hong Kong which confirmed the diagnosis yesterday. The source of his infection remains a mystery. The man said he had not left Guangzhou or eaten wild meat for more than a month before he fell ill.

Studies last year detected a Sars-like virus in several animal species including the masked palm civet, a long-tailed animal like a weasel with a dark face. The virus is thought to have jumped from animals to humans, although scientists have been unable to confirm that the civet was the source of last year's outbreak.

The victim and his associates remain well and under observation, the Chinese authorities said. In all, 81 people who had contact with him were quarantined, but 25 close and 39 casual contacts have been released. The doctors and nurses caring for him will be kept under observation.

The WHO said there was no immediate risk to public health from a single case and commended the Chinese authorities for their prompt response, in contrast to last year when China was blamed for covering up first signs of the disease, contributing to its spread. Officials said there was no evidence that the infection had been passed from the patient or any of his contacts and no Sars alert would be issued. "It is perfectly safe for members of the public to travel to Guangdong province," a statement from the organisation said.

"Sars can be controlled and contained if there is a system that allows early detection and isolation of cases and timely contact tracing. The Guangdong provincial health authorities are clearly committed to developing such a system and major steps have been taken to achieve this."

The Chinese authorities closed all wildlife markets in the province yesterday and launched a "patriotic health campaign" to exterminate rats and cockroaches ahead of the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday, which starts on 22 January, when tens of millions of people travel around the country.