INSIDE TRACK ON WORLD NEWS
by international syndicated columnist & broadcaster Eric Margolis
THE MENACE OF AVIAN FLU HANGS OVER ASIACopyright: Eric S. Margolis, 2005
October 31, 2005
DALIAN - Most foreigners have never heard of Dalian, but this lively, booming coastal city of six million is Northeast China’s version of San Francisco. Like Shanghai and Hong Kong, Dalian was founded by foreigners in the 19th century, and has become a commercial gateway to China’s vast Manchurian hinterland.
Remember the name of Dalian, because in the next decade, resource-rich Manchuria will become a focus of world attention.
Russia founded Dalny, as they called Dalian, as western terminus of the strategic Trans-Siberian Railroad. Thirty kms to the south at Lushun, (Port Arthur in Russian), they built a great fortress to guard that town’s magnificent harbor, the only Russian Pacific port that was ice-free year round.
Port Arthur fell to a ferocious Japanese siege exactly 100 years ago. Today, it remains an important naval harbor with a top secret nuclear submarine base.
Alas, my second attempt to discreetly explore Port Arthur’s forts failed miserably. I acquired a fun-loving, two-vehicle entourage of eleven Chinese, including various police officials and even a bodyguard for visiting dignitaries. Northeast Chinese are renowned for hospitality and love of partying.
I’ve been trying to focus on two major anniversaries: the centennial of the forgotten but very important 1905 Russo-Japanese War, and China’s victory in 1945 over Japan after eight years of war in which 30 million Chinese perished. Most westerners forget that China was a key ally in World War II, tied down the bulk of Japan’s ground forces, and killed 1.5 million Japanese troops.
But fast-growing fear of H5N1 avian flu totally dominates news. China just reported a new outbreak of the flu in Hunan. So far, 58 people have died from avian flu in Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia.
I just visited Cambodia, where another four farmers have died, bringing the Asian total to 62 deaths. Avian flu deaths came, say health authorities, from direct contact with infected fowl and droppings. No case of human to human transmission has yet been confirmed. Panic is not yet in order.
But this may be only a matter of time. When I was in Hong Kong, the `South China Morning Post’ ran a front-page photo of farm hands in southern China sleeping on the ground in a shed among hundreds of chickens.
Previous epidemics have originated in southern China’s unsanitary food markets where animals are treated with abominable cruelty. The SARS virus is now believed to have come from bats or their droppings used in traditional Chinese medicine.
China has been making mighty efforts to clean up its livestock - in fact, the entire country. The streets of China’s coastal cities are remarkably clean and sanitary, a major and welcome change from the recent past. But old bad habits are hard to break, particularly in squalid food markets. Government inspectors can’t be everywhere.
Last week, Beijing threatened to close its borders at the first case of proven human to human flu transmission. Other nations would surely follow this sensible precaution. North America would become immediately vulnerable unless it banned all international flights.
Even a few cases of suspected human-to-human avian flu could result in the temporary paralysis of world transportation and global trade. Asian governments are panicking at the prospect their export-dependant economies being shut down.
Taiwan’s government isn’t waiting: it is producing an unauthorized generic version of Roche’s patented Tamiflu, the main anti-viral drug believed to lessen flu symptoms.
But the key active raw ingredient used to make increasingly scarce Tamiflu is Chinese star anise, part of the famous five spices mixture. Star anise is in very short supply, though Roche says it has managed to synthesize the active ingredient, shikimic acid. South Korea, India, and other Asian nations threaten to follow Taiwan’s patent-busting lead.
China, which has 75% of the world’s geese, half its ducks and a quarter of its chickens, is on red alert to combat human-avian flu which threatens China’s surging exports and food supply. Across Asia and Europe, birds are being mercilessly slaughtered, often with great cruelty, as much for commercial as sanitary reasons.
There is no human vaccination yet against the H5N1 strain, though Hungary claims to be developing one. But if the avian flu does infect humans, the only recourse will be quarantine and isolation. Like the 1918 flu, which killed 50 million worldwide, the virus will first kill off the most susceptible, then gradually diminish in virulence as survivors develop resistance. But the death toll could still be enormous.
The likeliest place for the human avian virus to emerge will be among those least aware of its danger, isolated, illiterate farmers in Asia unwilling to destroy their livelihoods because they have what may be only a head cold.
Terrorism, oil prices, hurricanes, all seem minor threats compared to the potential danger of a new flu epidemic that could turn into a plague of biblical proportions.
Copyright Eric S. Margolis 2005
To read previous columns by Mr. Margolis: Click here
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