Sat, May 10, 2003 - Page 5 News List

China gets desperate in battle against SARS

SHARP RISE Hebei Province's infection rate has surged and the disease is now threatening to thrust into the poor countryside where most of China's people live


The SARS epidemic has exposed fatal flaws in China's rural health-care system, which must serve 800 million people on a shoestring budget.


Dressed head to toe in medical white and a red armband that declares "SARS Inspector," Yu Jianwei makes daily eight-hour rounds from one apartment to the next checking on household disinfection efforts.

Yu says he is one of about 1,000 volunteer inspectors in this city in northern China's Hebei Province -- part of an effort to keep the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus from spreading to new areas of a country where more than 4,600 people have been infected.

The respiratory illness, which has killed 224 on the mainland, is threatening to surge into the poor countryside where most of the country's 1.3 billion people live.

"It's society's duty to fight this disease," said Yu, a 36-year-old teacher who took on the new duties after his school shut down last month because of a SARS case. He had on a white cloth hat, surgical mask and gloves and wore a doctor's coat over his light blue button-down shirt.

On Thursday, a team of World Health Organization (WHO) experts arrived in Baoding on a five-day trip aimed at helping to strengthen such efforts and prevent a large epidemic in Hebei, which surrounds Beijing, the hardest-hit area.

So far, Hebei has reported 147 SARS cases and six deaths. The WHO said it was concerned about the province's sharply rising cases of infection -- which doubled to 98 between April 30 and May 4 -- and its large population of migrant workers.

"There's a lot of work to do," said Dr. Alan Schnur, a WHO official in Beijing who will join the team as it inspects hospitals and visit villages around Baoding, most in a maze of bright green farmland and dusty dirt roads.

Many farmers, wary of visitors from SARS-infected areas, have set up makeshift blockades.

Baoding is a mix of shabby and new -- shopping malls next to rows of ramshackle shops, huge apartment complexes neighboring dilapidated houses. Amid the SARS scare, traffic was light and residents went about their day, buying groceries, playing chess, flying kites and exercising in parks.

While life appeared normal, there was evidence of SARS everywhere. Many on the street wore masks and there were red and yellow banners everywhere urging a rousing fight against the disease.

"With one heart, we will conquer SARS!" said one. Another encouraged people to battle SARS with "all your might."

Makeshift guardposts were set up at entrances to apartment compounds to keep strangers -- and ideally, disease -- out. Written on a chalkboard at one post: "Whether you are looking for friends or relatives, you have to register your name." Serious-looking residents sat on chairs beside the sign.

At another complex, a masked guard waved in people as they showed identity cards.

"Of course this is an effective way to do things," said the guard, who refused to give his name.

At the Baoding city line, vehicles were stopped and sprayed with disinfectant. A team of doctors and nurses dressed in white protective jumpsuits, clear goggles, masks and plastic bag-covered shoes asked occupants to put thermometers under their arms.

Those with fevers would be taken to a city hospital for a checkup, said one of the doctors, Li Yong.

The teams worked in shifts of four hours and saw about 500 people each time, Li said.

"We have to be responsible," he said. "We hope to have this under control in the next few days," Li said.

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