Fear spreads in China over mystery lung virus
From Oliver August in Beijing

12 Feb 2003

CHEMISTS and stores have been swamped by people in parts of southern China fearing a mystery lung virus.
Some people were wearing surgical mask in the streets, despite doctors insisting that rumours were unnecessarily fanning public fears.

About 300 people were in hospital with pneumonia caused by the virus, one-third of them doctors, nurses and other health workers, an official of the provincial Disease Prevention and Control Centre said.

But doctors said that so far only five people had died and not the hundreds suggested by residents in Guangdong Province near Hong Kong.

“The disease is under control. It’s not as serious as the rumours said. The priority now is to figure out what caused it,” a doctor at the No 1 Hospital of the Guangzhou Medical School said. “We did not realise it was a serious epidemic, so we did not take it seriously at the beginning.”

Shoppers cleared stores of antibiotics and queued to pay inflated prices for vinegar, which many Chinese use as a disinfectant.

The panic also affected regional stock exchanges, with shares of drug companies rising, outdone only by a few vinegar-makers.

The identity of what is believed to be a virus linked to pneumonia is still not known. Leading Communist Party officials in Guangdong Province yesterday ordered an emergency team of experts to start a belated fight against the illness, which was first detected two months ago.

Governments in Hong Kong and Macau have also pleaded with residents not to panic, a likely response as the region has repeatedly been struck by deadly viruses in recent years.

Southern China is a significant source of new strains of influenza and other viruses that are often traced to the poultry industry. Bird flu in Hong Kong in 1997 killed six people and prompted the slaughter of all of its 1.4 million chickens.

Chemists and traditional Chinese herbal medicine stores reported dwindling stocks in Hong Kong as the rumours from Guangdong quickly spread. But Yeoh Engkiong, Hong Kong’s Secretary for Health and Welfare, said that there was no evidence that it was affecting the city. Neither pneumonia nor influenza cases had increased, he said. Nonetheless, television showed residents queuing for vinegar.

The Baiyunshan Pharmaceutical Corporation said that it had sent hundreds of boxes of anti-flu medication to pharmacies and hospitals since Saturday and was working around the clock to meet demand.

Anti-inflammatory medicines were also selling briskly. “They’re almost completely out of stock,” the Xinhua state news agency said. The agency discounted reports that the virus was related to anthrax.

Why flu is blamed for a multitude of ills

FLU is notoriously overdiagnosed. This could be a respiratory syncitial virus, or a rhinovirus, which has flu-like symptoms — but it is possible that the outbreak reflects a change in the nature of the prevailing flu virus (Dr Thomas Stuttaford writes).
There are three forms of flu — A, B or C — named according to the antigenic action. C produces a trivial illness, while A tends to be more serious than B. The nature of the virus shifts or drifts, that is to say that there are either major antigenic changes in the virus, or merely minor differences in its sub-type.

The world is subjected to a significant change almost every decade — just as happened in the great flu pandemic of 1918 and others in 1957, 1968 and 1977. New forms of flu often start at this time of year in one part of the world and work their way to the other side by the following winter. This delay allows manufacturers time to produce a vaccine against the latest strain.

In 1997, a variety of influenza A spread by hens caused alarm in Hong Kong. Fortunately, strenuous public health measures eliminated the avian source and the epidemic never spread. If it had, it would have been an entirely new strain and would have caused a pandemic with a high death toll.