Debra Bruno is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist. She blogs at www.notbyoccident.blogspot.com.
"From day one we were getting a lot of phone calls from nervous patients."
The Jiaming Center, a slick office building in Beijing's central business district, is taking no chances in the face of a possible epidemic caused by the H7N9 bird flu. Home to public relations firms, foreign newspapers, pharmaceutical companies, and consultants, the building now also has a half-dozen Purell-filled hand sanitizers scattered around the ground floor, and a sign in the bathrooms announcing that the sink and environs are "disinfected every two hours."
None of that caution was apparent just a week ago. But since authorities still don’t know how humans are catching the disease or whether it can spread from human to human, the anxiety level over this latest bird flu is high. Though there have not yet been any reported cases in China’s capital, 38 people on the country’s east coast have been infected and ten of them have died.
"It was amazing just how quickly this grabbed everyone's attention," says Dr. Richard Saint Cyr, a family physician with Beijing United Family Hospital who writes a popular English-language health blog here. "From day one we were getting a lot of phone calls from nervous patients, and we quickly started to update our community via our website and dozens of social media outlets." Staff members, he says, were concerned for colleagues at a sister hospital in Shanghai.
The hospital formed an "emergency response team," he says, and prepared for a possible epidemic. But although the staff still holds daily briefings, "I am very happy that these last few days have seen no spread of this virus, and the anxiety level is definitely mellowed."
With air quality all week running in the "moderate" range, around 60 – a number that would raise anxiety in the U.S. but is cause for a sigh of relief in one of the world's most polluted cities – few of Beijing's citizens are wearing the face masks that were common in the winter months. The Chinese habit of spitting phlegm on sidewalks has not diminished.
At a seminar offered by an International SOS clinic in Beijing, regional director Dr. Craig Stark told several dozen men and women that a little common sense would prevent most people from exposure to the virus. Avoid markets with live poultry, he advised. Wash hands often, and maybe stay away from large crowds for a while.
The people at the seminar, chiefly English-speaking foreigners, wanted to know if baking muffins with eggs or handling raw poultry would expose them to the flu. One mother said that her children’s school had removed poultry and egg products from the menu. Stark assured them that proper hygiene and cooking the food thoroughly would kill all pathogens.
Even so, the H7N9's high mortality rate and the four or five new cases reported each day means that it's important to take it seriously, Stark said. A colleague on a recent flight from Hong Kong to Beijing told him a riot nearly broke out after the meal service ran out of beef dishes and could offer only chicken.
Businesses have started to take a hit. Sales have dropped at KFC, one of the country's favorite fast food restaurants. Airlines China Southern and China Eastern saw their stocks drop to the lowest level in months as investors anticipate a drop in travel.
And Beijing has detained ten people for spreading rumors about bird flu, Reuters reports, including "fake information online" about infections.
Some industries stand to benefit from the scare. Minggao Shen, Citigroup’s head of China research, told the Wall Street Journal that car makers could benefit as people buy cars as a way of avoiding public transportation. And the makers of some forms of traditional Chinese medicine, including one called ban lan gen, are facing a run, particularly when government officials in Shanghai suggested that taking the medicine, made from the root of a flowering plant called woad, could actually prevent infection. The plant almost immediately sold out on Taobao, China’s version of eBay. And People’s Daily reported that the stock price of Guangzhou Pharmaceutical Holdings Limited, a maker of traditional Chinese medicine, rose 10 percent earlier this week.
What's next is hard to say. BJU's Saint Cyr notes that there is no evidence yet that H7N9 has been transmitted to another human. "Let's hope it stays that way," he says.
Top image: A girl tires to feed a goose under the help of her father at Beijing Zoo. All of the 14 reported infections from the H7N9 bird flu strain have been in eastern China and at least four of the dead are in Shanghai, a city of 23 million people and the showpiece of China's vibrant economy. (Jason Lee/Reuters)