H7N9 threatens Spring Festival travel plans
Published: Jan 23, 2014 05:18 PM Updated: Jan 24, 2014 08:28 AM

Illustration: Lu Ting/GT

Since Saturday, a lot of attention has been paid to Shanghai's two sessions. The Shanghai Municipal People's Congress received 79 proposals from delegates by Tuesday and the Shanghai Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) received 820 proposals by Monday.

The Global Times is honored to invite two consuls general in Shanghai who audited the city's CPPCC to write about their experiences and impressions of this year's event. Their articles will be published next week.

This week I have enough reason to put the new wave of H7N9 cases at the top of the list of the city's most pressing issues.

The death of Zhang Xiaodong, a 31-year-old doctor at Pudong New Area People's Hospital, caused alarm since Zhang was an emergency room surgeon. Shanghai's health commission confirmed Monday that two men died on Saturday from the H7N9 strain of bird flu: Zhang and a 77-year-old farmer who had a history of contact with live poultry.

Zhang is the first doctor to be reported to have contracted the virus, causing concern that the virus could be transmitted from human to human. A Chinese mainland tourist to Taiwan was also confirmed to have died from the disease this week.

According to an official from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (China CDC), there is no evidence that H7N9 is contagious enough to pass from human to human. But before the source of Zhang's virus can be pinpointed, the public has reason to worry about the possibility that the virus has become more dangerous.

Zhang's last few days were traced back in detail. On January 4, he visited his parents whose neighbor raises doves. Nearby the hospital where he worked, there is a wet market where live poultry is sold.

Zhang's family and the doctors who treated him are being closely monitored, but so far, none has developed influenza-like symptoms, Lu Hongzhou, vice director of the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center, told the Global Times on Tuesday.

Both medical authorities and the general public are keeping a close eye on the spread of the virus ahead of the Chinese lunar new year, which falls on January 31.

The tradition of family reunion on New Year's Eve makes every year's Spring Festival travel rush a mass migration of staggering proportions. It is estimated that 3.6 billion passenger journeys will take place across China's vast territory in the 40 days of peak travel that began on January 16.

I'm among the swarm of migrants. My hometown is in Zhejiang Province, which has been the region worst hit by bird flu so far; this year alone a total of 37 confirmed H7N9 cases have been reported as of Thursday. Every day I make a phone call to my mother, urging her not to prepare chicken or duck. Most years, besides killing live poultry for the seven-day Spring Festival holiday, she also makes salted chicken or duck for us to take home, which we sometimes continue to enjoy until early May.

I still don't know whether my mother will listen to me and avoid live poultry because I assume that most of her neighbors will think, "I won't contract the virus as I have done this for so many years." What I fear most is that my mother will follow her neighbors in assuming immunity and ignore my advice.

I plan to go back home next week, but I am ready to stay in Shanghai if the daily updates of H7N9 cases continue to rise. Many of my Zhejiang friends share my concern of whether to change our New Year plans if the situation gets worse. We can't forget the SARS outbreak of 2003 and the psychological pressure we endured then.

But I'm not panicking. Compared with 2003, much progress has been made in information release and professional communication about the virus and protective measures we can take to minimize the risk of infection.

With the help of social networking platforms such as Weibo and WeChat, daily updates from the China CDC can reach netizens very fast. The public can have access to information about the patients, although the practice may hurt the patients' friends and family members.

In the interest of public safety, individuals have to sacrifice some privacy. The transparent information undoubtedly will help us fight the spread of the virus. We can find scientific charts on both traditional media and new media that explain the differences between bird flu and the common flu. The principle of early discovery, early treatment should be always followed.

It would also be prudent to follow the advice of professional medical organizations like the WHO, which advocate proper hygiene measures to prevent infection, such as washing hands thoroughly before and after food preparation, before eating, after using the toilet and so on.

Meat and eggs should be well cooked and served piping hot. Cover your nose and mouth when sneezing or coughing, and wash your hands thoroughly afterwards and after blowing your nose.

After the outbreak of SARS, restaurants and families in Hong Kong began using serving utensils for communal meals so that chopsticks don't go into mouths and then back to shared dishes. This is a sensible practice to follow as families across the country gather for Chinese New Year reunion dinners.

Hopefully, the spread of the virus can be brought under control before it claims more lives and we can all enjoy a worry-free Spring Festival.

The author is the managing editor of Global Times Metro Shanghai.