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Chinese tested for Ebola—but only in Guangdong

/ 12:07 AM November 03, 2014

China responded to international pressure to release more data about Ebola virus disease infections in the mainland but only on one province. And the data are generally confusing, and relate only to one province.

China’s official news agency has admitted that 43 Chinese have tested negative for Ebola, the largest number tested for the disease outside West Africa. But all of them were from the southern province of Guangdong only, which has a population of 106 million. China’s state press agency, Xinhua, made no mention of Ebola screenings in China’s 21 other provinces, five autonomous regions and the four direct-controlled municipalities of Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Chongqing.

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More surprisingly, Xinhua revealed that 8,672 Chinese have returned to Guangdong from the three Ebola-epicenter countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea in West Africa since late August. Of this number, 5,437 were released from “medical supervision,” a term the Chinese government refused to define. The figure released by China—and, again, this is only from Guangdong—is the largest of Ebola screenings worldwide outside of the three above-cited Ebola-ravaged countries.

Western health authorities noted the Chinese government press release gave no details about the more than 3,000 other Chinese tested for Ebola in Guangdong. Beijing also didn’t explain what it meant by “medical supervision” or specify which West African countries the returning Chinese came from. Previous to these new revelations that began with a Chinese press release blitz on Oct. 21, China had kept silent about Ebola virus infections among its citizens. This, despite the 20,000 Chinese that either work or live in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. At least half this number seem to have returned to China since August.

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A spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the Chinese coming home from West Africa were “screened” for symptoms, and if they showed no signs of Ebola they were allowed to travel in China without restrictions. However, what screening methods were used weren’t specified; most likely they only involved just taking the temperatures of those suspected of Ebola.

Chen Yuansheng, director of the Guangdong Provincial Health and Family Planning Commission, said Guangdong had kept 43 people under observation since the end of August but they all had been declared Ebola-free. “All individuals from Ebola-affected areas will have repeated temperature checks,” Chen said. He also noted that the commission had singled out hotels where persons from Ebola-affected countries visiting the Canton Fair in Guangzhou, the capital city of Guangdong, are staying. Health authorities “will check the temperatures of these people in the morning and evening,” Chen said. The Canton Fair, China’s largest trade exhibition, opened in Guangzhou last week. It will end in early November.

Gao Fu, deputy director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told Chinese media it was “only a matter of time” before Ebola entered China. “With [China’s] strong ties with Africa, it is only a matter of time before (Ebola) enters Asia and China. The risk of it spreading to China has always been high, especially in Guangzhou and Yiwu (in Zhejiang),” Gao said. Gao’s statement supports a recent report, from the Laboratory for the Modeling of Biological and Socio-Technical Systems at Northeastern University in Boston, that China is the Asian country most at risk from Ebola infections by the end of October.

Gao, however, believes Ebola won’t spread far in China because the epidemic in West Africa was abetted by very poor medical facilities and because Ebola also has limited means of transmission. “There is no chance of a large-scale outbreak as long as protection is good and direct contact is prevented,” Gao said.

Gao headed a team of 59 Chinese doctors and health workers that worked in Sierra Leone to help monitor Ebola. Sierra Leone has a large population of Chinese and is the West African country where China is focusing its Ebola-monitoring efforts and funding. Reports, however, say China remains unprepared for a widespread Ebola epidemic. China doesn’t have a single operational BSL-4 facility. The first such facility in China is currently being built with French aid at the Wuhan Institute of Virology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and will be completed in two years’ time. Wuhan is the capital of Hubei province in central China. Work on the Wuhan facility began back in 2007 and the delay in the facility’s construction could prove fatal for China’s chances of containing an Ebola epidemic.

BSL-4 is a maximum containment laboratory for handling Ebola and other highly dangerous pathogens that cause severe-to-fatal diseases in humans, and for which vaccines or other treatments aren’t available.

Art Villasanta is a historian of the Korean War and a keen student of military history. His military websites are at www.peftok.blogspot.com and www.futurewardefeat.blogspot.com.

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