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Health officials press China in mysterious pig deaths

Details sought to stop outbreak

A pig looked out from its pen yesterday in Anhui Province, central China. Because pigs can catch many of the same diseases as people, health authorities track and investigate unexplained patterns of pig deaths. (AFP/getty images)

HONG KONG -- A mysterious epidemic is killing pigs in southeastern China, but international and Hong Kong authorities said yesterday that the Chinese government was providing little information about it or the contaminated wheat gluten that has caused death and illness in animals.

The lack of even basic details is reviving longstanding questions about whether China is willing to share information about health and food safety issues with potentially global implications.

The Chinese government -- and particularly the government of Guangdong Province, which is next to Hong Kong -- was criticized in 2003 for concealing information about the SARS virus when it emerged in Foshan, 95 miles northwest of Hong Kong. After SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, spread to Hong Kong and around the world, top Chinese officials promised to improve disclosure.

But officials in Hong Kong, at the World Health Organization, and at the Food and Agriculture Organization said yesterday that they had been told almost nothing about the latest pig deaths and that they had been given limited details about the apparently unrelated problem of wheat gluten contamination.

Because pigs can catch many of the same diseases as people, including bird flu, the WHO and FAO maintain global networks to track and investigate unexplained patterns of pig deaths.

Hong Kong television and newspapers gave lurid accounts yesterday of pigs staggering around with blood pouring from their bodies in Gaoyao and neighboring Yunfu, both in Guangdong Province. The Apple Daily newspaper said that up to 80 percent of the pigs had died in the area, that peasants were engaged in panic selling of ailing animals at deep discounts, and that pig carcasses were floating down the river.

The disease reportedly started killing pigs after Chinese New Year celebrations in February, but is now spreading. The state-controlled news media in China have had a few reports on the wheat gluten problem and almost nothing on the pig deaths.

A man who answered the phone at the city government in Gaoyao, 140 miles northwest of Hong Kong, confirmed yesterday that pigs were dying there. He declined to give his name.

Kwok Ka-ki, a surgeon who represents the medical profession in Hong Kong's legislature, said the Chinese government should share all information about pig deaths with the Chinese public and with Hong Kong, which Britain returned to China in 1997.

"They definitely need to tell the public, but also people in the city, as to the extent of the outbreak, how the disease is being controlled and the impact on public health," he said. "It would help a lot to relieve the worry, and it would help the rest of China to fight the disease."

There have been no reports of people becoming ill from the disease. But the SARS experience has left Hong Kong with lasting jitters about mysterious diseases coming from mainland China.

Medical experts said the extent of the pigs' bleeding, including reports of bloody skin lesions, did not sound like the usual symptoms of bird flu, but that the pig deaths needed to be investigated.

Two spokeswomen for the Hong Kong Food and Environmental Hygiene Department said the Guangdong authorities had told the department only that no live pigs were being shipped from the Yunfu and Gaoyao areas to Hong Kong.

A spokesman for the Hong Kong Agriculture, Fisheries , and Conservation Department said there were no signs of suspicious deaths among Hong Kong's pigs, and referred questions about pigs in Guangdong to the food department.

Both departments said last week in written responses to questions that they were not testing wheat gluten imported from the mainland for the presence of melamine scrap, a residue from the manufacture of a chemical used in plastic production. The presence of melamine in pet food has been linked to the deaths of as many as 4,000 cats and dogs in the United States, and prompted the culling of chickens that ate contaminated feed.

Hong Kong officials expressed surprise yesterday when told that the official Xinhua news agency mentioned a month ago that the mainland had begun nationwide testing of wheat gluten for melamine. Animal feed dealers in northeastern China said late last month that the two main destinations for feed mixed with melamine had been the Yangtze Delta region near Shanghai and the Pearl River Delta region near Hong Kong.

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