Now that China has finally admitted the SARS epidemic started in the southern province of Guangdong and is letting investigators into the country, new discoveries are being made about the virus. One of these is that the first people who came down with the disease ate or handled wild game, such as chickens, ducks and owls. “We will explore further if the disease was passed to human beings from wild animals. You know, Guangdong people like eating exotic animals and I don’t find it a healthy practice,” says Bi Shengli, of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The earliest cases of SARS have been traced to either chefs or bird sellers.
“Coronaviruses can cause respiratory diseases in birds, so we might think they could do the same in people,” says virologist Yvonne Cossart. Every year, several new forms of the flu virus originate in the Hong Kong bird markets. Often, large numbers of birds are slaughtered to prevent the virus from mutating and infecting humans.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention says it’s too early to know if we’ve caught SARS in time to prevent a global epidemic. “The race is on,” says Julie Gerberding. “The stakes are high. And the outcome cannot be predicted.”
In order to keep up with the SARS story, listen to Dreamland every week, where science reporter Linda Howe tells us the latest, without pulling any punches.
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