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Rat 'Mutton' And Bird Flu: Strange Days For Meat Eaters In Shanghai

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Rat 'Mutton' And Bird Flu: Strange Days For Meat Eaters In Shanghai

Eating And Health

Rat 'Mutton' And Bird Flu: Strange Days For Meat Eaters In Shanghai

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Health officials are hoping that we are not seeing the early signs of a global pandemic. For now, the focus is on China, where a new bird flu strain has emerged. It's known as H7N9. A new death is being reported there this morning, bringing the death toll in this current outbreak to 32. Many of those deaths have occurred in China's second-largest city, Shanghai, and that's where we begin our coverage, with NPR's Frank Langfitt. He found residents who seemed to be taking the outbreak in stride.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Every morning here at Xiang Ming High School there's a nurse named Zhang Hong. She stands at the gate in a white lab coat and she watches the students come in. Students, a lot of them are wearing a track suit - it's kind of a like school uniform - and many of them are dragging big roll bags full of books.

ZHANG HONG: (Through translator) If a student feels uncomfortable, we give them a check-up. If their temperature is over 100, we take them to the hospital to see a doctor.

LANGFITT: Zhang says she finds two or three students a day with temperatures but so far none with the virus. And she's not that worried about it.

HONG: (Through translator) This time around the bird flu is not very infectious and it's not as serious as SARS.

LANGFITT: SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, struck South China in late 2002. It eventually infected more than 8,000 people in 32 countries and killed more than 700 worldwide. So far, H7N9 has only infected about 130 people, mostly just here in China. But it could turn out to be much more lethal. At the moment its death rate is twice that of SARS. Scientists found H7N9 in birds in outdoor markets. Shanghai responded by shutting down live poultry sales and killing more than 100,000 chickens, ducks and other fowl.


LANGFITT: Even in this apartment complex where I'm standing right now, managers have penned off a group of black swans on the off chance they become infected.

Some restaurants have stopped serving chicken but people continue to eat it. At a KFC on Nanjing Road, Shanghai's main shopping street, tables are jammed at lunchtime. A man named Yang, who works for a computer chip maker, considers his New Orleans chicken burger.

YANG: (Through translator) I'm not worried. It's common knowledge that the virus will be killed under high temperature. So judging by existing reports, it's safe to eat chicken.

LANGFITT: Out on the street, Zhang, a 40-year-old office administrator, wears a surgical mask and has sworn off chicken. But she says officials have responded better to this virus than they did to SARS.

ZHANG: (Through translator) It seems only after SARS had already spread all around the country that the government started to take some action. Now Shanghai's response is fairly quick. After a few cases were discovered, a news conference was held.

LANGFITT: And not everyone is satisfied. Last week the daughter of a couple infected by H7N9 crashed a press conference to question officials about her father's treatment. She hadn't seen her dad in nearly a month. Officials escorted her out before she could address them. The worry now is H7N9 might adapt and spread easily from person to person. Leo Poon, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong, says the virus already has a couple of key mutations.

LEO POON: These two are quite important, and that may hint that the virus is trying to adapt into humans. I mean like colleagues all over the world who who work with influenza virus, they are all very concerned about it. Of course we hope that this will not be another possibility of having a pandemic, but then who knows?

LANGFITT: Back at the KFC, Wang Chao, a recent college grad, says he's cut back on his chicken eating. And as long as the virus only spreads from birds to people, he's not too concerned. Human to human transmission would be a different story.

WANG CHAO: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: If that really happens, he says, I would be really worried. And so would everyone else. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.

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