Over the past several years, I’ve been at the heart of several internationally-feared viral outbreaks.
I was in China during the height of the SARS epidemic in 2003. The outside world was lead to believe that the entire focus of SARS was in Guangdong and Hong Kong, but in fact the epidemic, and the resulting crackdown, spread throughout the country. I was in Sichuan and Yunnan much of the time, and there were rumors that local hospitals were full of patients. Most tourists fled the country by April, and volunteers for groups like the peace corps were evacuated. Traveling between provinces meant quarantine and compulsory health exams, including chest x-rays, blood tests and temperature checks. Public transportation stopped every 30 minutes for sanitation and health check-ups. The purposefulness of the checks was questionable however, as individuals with fevers were often allowed to continue on their travels. There was a complete crackdown on the flow of information, as the internet was shut down for more than a week during the worst part of the epidemic.
The bird flu epidemic stands in complete contrast. I was in Vietnam during the height of America’s hysteria, and while it topped headlines in the US news media, back in Vietnam it had little effect on our lives. For a brief period, restaurants did stop servicing poultry, and some locals briefly modified their diet to limit consumption of chicken or duck, but overall, no one really cared and paid little attention to the news.
The one thing that really bothered me, was how health officials and the news media told the public that the bird flu was a serious concern, yet it was safe to eat cooked poultry (because heat killed the virus). While this might have been true to a point, it ignored the risk (in theory), that workers faced by handling the live poultry before it found its way to a tourist’s dinner plate.
During this time, many of my Vietnamese friends went to a traveling health clinic to receive free vaccinations. I was shocked when I asked them what the vaccinations were for, and they told me they didn’t know. I’d never submit to “free medicine” without know exactly what it is—even back home in the USA. I suspect they were receiving experimental vaccines for the bird flu.
In the end of course, the bird flu turned out to be empty hype. I believe it was a scare-tactic used by healthcare organizations to drum up funding for future programs. The news media was also happy for headlines during an otherwise slow news period.
About two years ago there was a terrifying outbreak in Sichuan, China, of a little-known virus carried by domestic pigs. It was a hemorrhagic fever similar to Ebola, yet far worse. People who contracted the disease died from internal bleeding in less than 24 hours after coming into contact with humans or pigs affected by the disease. At first the disease spread rapidly. So aggressive were the government’s quarantine measures however, that the virus appeared to burn itself out due to a shortage of available victims. The government’s communication crackdown was also so effective that the story never appeared in the international media, despite the previous obsessions with the bird flu and SARS.
My experience with these outbreaks overseas has taught me several things. First, use common sense, and always practice good hygiene. Even just washing your hands with soapy water periodically makes a big significance. Secondly, don’t believe everything the government or media of any country says without question. There are motives beyond your individual safety, including national pride, preservation of the tourism industry, protection of healthcare agencies, and the prevention of widespread panic.