Experts urge restraint in mass slaughter of civet cats

A man diagnosed as suffering from the first new case of SARS since mid-2003 has recovered fully, as a mass slaughter of civet cats suspected of transmitting the disease gets under way in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, RFA reports.

The 32-year-old television producer�identified by his surname, Luo�has been recovering for more than two weeks and has shown no sign of fever since Dec. 24, official media reports said.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and Chinese health officials confirmed Jan. 5 that Luo was indeed suffering from SARS. The news prompted the provincial government to speed up a planned slaughter of 10,000 civet cats, thought to be linked to the migration of the virus to humans. The weasel-like mammals are considered a delicacy in Guangdong and are served in wild game restaurants.

Researchers at Hong Kong University found similarities between a virus found in the civet cats and in the suspected SARS patient, suggesting the disease might have recently jumped from animals.

However, experts have warned the Chinese government to show caution in its policy on civet cats, weasel-like mammals considered a delicacy in Guangdong�s wild game restaurants.

WHO experts said the cull could eliminate evidence of the disease�s origins�and create new dangers.

�We could indeed be destroying the evidence,� Dr. Jeffrey Gilbert, a WHO animal expert, told a news conference in Beijing.

Dr. Julie Hall, the WHO�s SARS team leader in Beijing, said caution also was warranted to prevent any infection that could come from a mass killing of the animals. �There is a potential hazard there,� she said.

And Dutch virologist Albert Osterhaus of the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam said the civet cat, a cousin of the mongoose, was only one among many theoretical animal vectors of SARS.

�The presence of the virus has been demonstrated in civet cats at market places but also in raccoon dogs and badger ferrets, and there are also a number of other species, such as domestic ferrets and cats, which can be (experimentally) infected,� Osterhaus was quoted as saying by Agence France-Presse. �The virus is relatively promiscuous. It can infect many different animal species, probably also including rodents, so taking all those things together, the question really is whether the culprit is indeed the civet cat.�

Luo�s illness was caused by a slightly different version of the SARS virus that killed almost 800 people worldwide since the outbreak began in November 2002.

SARS�or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome�killed 349 people in Mainland China before authorities said they had contained the virus in the summer of 2003.

China banned trade in civets and 53 other wild animals last April amid sweeping efforts to stop the spread of SARS. That prohibition was lifted in August despite warnings that the animals might still pose a health threat. #####


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