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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 August 2005, 15:49 GMT 16:49 UK
China villagers ignorant of pig disease
By Nick Mackie
BBC News, eastern Sichuan

Market in Zizhong
Sales of pork went down as news of the disease spread
Once through the toll booths on the main highway, the first roadside billboard in Sichuan is somewhat surprising.

It tells incoming drivers they are entering a "disease free zone", a model for the nation.

But far from being disease free, this area has become a death zone.

A disease caused by the pig-borne bacterium streptococcus suis has now killed more than 35 people, with nearly 200 others infected.

But deep in the rolling countryside, life must go on. It is harvest time, and women are gathering corn cobs to feed their pigs through the winter.

In a small hillside community near the town of Zizhong, everyone has a backyard pigsty. The locals are both nervous and confused about this strange virulent swine disease that they hear has struck nearby.

Huang Mingshen, 77, was born in the village. He grows sweet potatoes and keeps ducks, chickens and two pigs.

Huang Mingshen
If the pig gets sick or dies, we usually eat the meat - now they want us to just throw it away!
Huang Mingshen
Like many people in the countryside, he rarely reads a newspaper or tunes into the television and radio - except for light entertainment.

So he did not know that dozens of farmers had died after handling infected pigs until the government sent out door-to-door leaflets.

The instructions came as a surprise for Mr Huang, who is now being asked to change the habits of a lifetime.

"It's mainly about how to prevent infection," he explained. "But it's all new to me! If the pig gets sick or dies, we usually eat the meat - now they want us to just throw it away!"

In communities where the average income is under $200 annually, this is like destroying treasure.

The rules are necessary to save lives, but they are alien to the culture of the village - where everything must be saved and used.

It is very different in the towns, where incomes are higher and people better informed.

In Zizhong's old market street - where live poultry and fish are gutted by the roadside - sales of pork have more than halved.

One trader said he used to butcher up to six pigs a day, but now he is lucky to carve up two.

Customers fear bad meat is ending up on the hooks, because the government took weeks before it warned the public of the crisis.

Media blackout

It is clear that more than a month after the first human cases appeared on 24 June, many villagers still knew nothing about the crisis.

By the time the government launched its door-to-door leaflet drop on 28 July it was already too late for some families.

24 June: First human cases of "mystery illness" found in Ziyang, Sichuan
23 July: First media report on official state news agency Xinhua says 17 dead
25 July: Disease identified as streptococcus suis
Beginning of August: 37 dead, 205 infected
Ziyang, 50 km (31 miles) from Zizhong, has the highest concentration of deaths in this crisis.

It is also off-limits to foreign reporters. Local cadres dart around on motorbikes on the lookout for any newcomers asking questions.

In Da Yan village, the Shen family were eager to tell their story.

Although they had just lost their father, the two sons warmly welcomed me. Their mother and two sisters cut up a watermelon.

Life is clearly hard for these people, with little time for grief. In the enclosed courtyard - flanked by a two-storey house, pigsties and chicken runs - they recounted how their 65-year-old father had helped butcher the neighbour's sick pig.

Five people then had a meal with the pork, but only Mr Shen senior got ill.

"It's normal for us to butcher the dead pigs to have the meat," said 32-year-old Shen Minglin.

"But this time, four days later, my father got sick and was sent to hospital where we paid for treatment. He died the next morning."

The sons said nobody in their village knew of the illness until their father's death.

At that point, having been with the Shens less than 10 minutes, two local party cadres marched into the yard and began shouting at the family.

They were clearly perturbed by the conversation and the presence of a foreign journalist.

There was no consideration of the family's bereavement - nor the fact that this was their home.

Lack of information

The row ended up by the roadside - with many of the villagers accusing the cadres of inaction.

The Shens insist the local government had a meeting to discuss the crisis on 19 July, although warnings posted in the village bear the date 25 July - the same day Mrs Shen became a widow.

Provincial governments across China are well aware of countryside practices such as eating meat from sick animals, rather than seeing it wasted.

Mr Shen's son in the family home
Mr Shen's family are angry at the lack of information
The authorities also know that the only sure way to get information to the people is to mobilise the village cadres and go door-to-door.

But it took a visit from China's health minister on 28 July to implement a clear action plan that sent 50,000 officials out with over 2 million leaflets.

Sichuan also put other regions at risk. It took the deaths of 19 people before the Sichuan authorities informed their neighbours.

Over the eastern border, producers in Chongqing's Ronchang County now disinfect their pigs daily.

Checkpoints have been established to turn back any vehicles with Sichuan pork.

But He Guifang, head of Ronchang County Animal Disease Prevention Department, said she only knew about the infection for certain after reading the local newspaper on 24 July.

Although Beijing says incompetent officials will be punished, this latest crisis is an uncomfortable reminder of the outbreak of Sars - a respiratory virus which emerged in China's southern Guangdong province in late 2002 and spread to many other countries in the region.

Then too, a culture of secrecy found itself at odds with a duty to protect the public.

WHO urges more tests on pig fever
01 Aug 05 |  Asia-Pacific
China alerts farmers to pig fever
30 Jul 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Deaths rise from Chinese disease
27 Jul 05 |  Asia-Pacific
China names fatal Sichuan illness
26 Jul 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Mystery China bug toll reaches 17
25 Jul 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: China
02 Jun 05 |  Country profiles


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