“[The pig] carcasses were piled so high there was no way they could be cremated, so a burial ditch was dug; but once again, water rose to the surface a couple of feet down, so that was out. Driven to desperation, farm personnel had no choice but to wait until the veterinarians left and, in the fading light of dusk, loaded the carcasses onto a flatbed wagon and hauled them down to the river, where they were tossed into the water to float downstream — out of sight, out of mind.”
Who would have thought that this situation, described by China’s Nobel Laureate Mo Yan (莫言) in his 2006 novel Life and Death are Wearing Me Out, would be re-enacted along a section of the Huangpu River near Shanghai last month?
Shanghai environmental authorities maintain there must be a reason for the deaths of all these pigs and there would be serious repercussions for upstream pig farmers if they had disposed of the carcasses.
The governments of Jiaxing City and Shanghai are reluctant to accept any blame, preferring to point the finger at each other.
The reason for the confusion is that pig farmers along the river and the authorities responsible for keeping tabs on epidemics have largely operated independently of each other. Communication and coordination between such authorities was also lacking, preventing the carcasses from being intercepted earlier. As it stands, the carcasses were only intercepted after they had reached the Huangpu River, so it has been impossible to identify where they came from. China sat on this information for three weeks before it reported it to the WHO.
However, the H7N9 avian flu virus comes not only from pigs, but also from chickens and ducks, and South China has a high density of fowl, an estimated 3 billion birds, and this, coupled with chicken and pigs being reared together, makes this part of China the world’s primary area for avian flu outbreaks. If the excessive development and destruction of the environment that has taken place over the past 20 years is added to the mix, it is hardly surprising that frequent outbreaks of H5N1 avian flu have occurred in south China — Guangdong and Hong Kong — and also outbreaks of the H7N9 strain in Shanghai.
On Oct. 7, 2005, US virologist Jeffery Taubenberger, then of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, published an important paper in Nature magazine in which he detailed the genetic sequence of the H1N1 influenza virus that caused the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.
Taubenberger was puzzled as to why the H1N1 virus spread so quickly and why it killed so many people. The virus was extremely virulent, but needed to incubate in swine as an intermediary host so that it could mutate and be able to attach itself to the receptors of cells in the upper respiratory tract of humans, allowing for human-to-human infection.
In 1918 the First World War was still raging. Spanish flu occurred against the backdrop of environmental destruction on a huge scale and this seems to have caused a high incidence of avian and swine influenza, contributing to the deaths of large numbers of birds and pigs.
The succession of epidemics — the 1997 H5N1 avian flu outbreak in Hong Kong and Guangdong, the H7N9 avian flu outbreak in Shanghai this year, and the mass death of pigs — all tell us that the environment and disease prevention efforts in China are crisis-ridden. Excessive development and the destruction of the environment, and that avian flu has already established itself in major cities there, should serve as warning signs.
China is not a safe place to live. Taiwanese working there need to be careful.
Mayo Kuo is a Taiwan-based pediatrician; his brother, Max Kuo, is a US-based pediatrician.
Translated by Paul Cooper