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Fleeing migrant workers spread disease to hometowns

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WASHINGTON, May 14, 2003--Some Chinese hospitals are charging impoverished migrant workers hundreds of dollars to treat their SARS symptoms, despite orders from the central government to waive medical fees for those who can't afford treatment for the deadly virus, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reports.

In one instance, a 21-year-old migrant worker fled the Xuanwu District Huimin Hospital on May 2 after he was asked to pay 5,000 yuan (about $600 U.S.) for doctors to treat him for SARS. While recovering from the virus, he fled the hospital and returned by train to his hometown of Huazi Township, Liaoyang, in Liaoning Province, according to several health officials in the northeastern province who spoke on condition of anonymity. About 40 people with whom the man is known to have been in contact, in and around his hometown, were subsequently quarantined, they said.

"He was asked to pay 5,000 yuan after he was treated for SARS, so he ran away from the hospital and returned home here," said one official. "SARS treatment in Beijing is free for Beijing residents only, so he was asked to pay."

It is impossible to know how many of China's tens of millions of migrant workers may have encountered similar treatment and fled SARS-infected areas such as Beijing and Guangzhou. But the prospect of legions of penniless workers fanning out across the countryside, spreading SARS to an already failing rural health-care system, raises a chilling spectre.

In fact, on May 1, four alarmed government ministries in Beijing--the ministries of health, finance, labor and social security, and civil affairs -- issued an urgent circular stating that patients presenting with fevers should be examined without going through the normal registration process. The circular also directed that patients diagnosed with SARS or admitted with SARS-like symptoms should be treated regardless of their ability to pay, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

But health-care officials in Liaoning and Beijing, interviewed by RFA's Mandarin service, said many hospitals had ignored the directive and were still demanding hundreds of dollars to treat SARS patients who lacked any means to pay their bills. One official complained that the directives were difficult to follow because they failed to spell out who constitutes an indigent patient.

One Beijing doctor, who asked to be identified only as Dr. Zhao of the Renhe Hospital in the Daxing district of Beijing, said some hospitals are requiring a deposit of several thousand yuan (several hundred dollars U.S.) of patients who present with flu-like symptoms. "If they are treated for SARS, that will cost them at least several thousand yuan," Dr. Zhao said.

"There is no such thing as free SARS treatment," said a Liaoning health-care official. "There is no guarantee. Some migrant workers can be treated free or charged a reduced amount. We do have some special policies in terms of unemployed workers and migrant workers, but we did not promise free treatment."

A Liaoning official charged with tracking and containing contagious diseases said migrant workers were leaving Beijing in large numbers because SARS had effectively halted construction projects in the Chinese capital. But he also reported that those who were unwell feared going to Beijing hospitals because they knew they couldn't afford treatment.

"In Liaoning Province alone, at least three migrant workers who were infected with the virus fled from Beijing--and one of them has died," said a Liaoning health-care official. In Chaoyang, in western Liaoning Province, he said, "thousands of workers have come back from Beijing [since the virus erupted]."

To what extent the expensive treatment in Beijing caused them to flee remains unclear, but it was a contributing factor, the official said.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao warned on May 7 of a serious SARS outbreak in the Chinese provinces. More than 800,000 migrant workers have returned in recent weeks to central Henan Province, and another million to neighboring Anhui Province, according to Chinese media reports. Some 75 percent of an estimated 290,000 migrant workers who returned to Henan in the first few days of May, further, came from SARS-affected areas, the China News Service reported.

SARS, which is believed to have first appeared in China's southern Guangdong Province late last year, has sickened thousands of people and killed hundreds in roughly 30 countries around the world.

RFA broadcasts news and information to Asian listeners who lack regular access to full and balanced reporting in their domestic media. Through its broadcasts and call-in programs, RFA aims to fill a critical gap in the lives of people across Asia. Created by Congress in 1994 and incorporated in 1996, RFA currently broadcasts in Burmese, Cantonese, Khmer, Korean, Lao, Mandarin, the Wu dialect, Vietnamese, Tibetan (Uke, Amdo and Kham) and Uyghur.

It adheres to the highest standards of journalism and aims to exemplify accuracy, balance and fairness in its editorial content. #####


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