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China's SARS Patient Zero?
On December 15, last year, 36-year-old Heyuan native, Huang Xingchu, who works in a local restaurant in Shenzhen, got a fever and went to Heyuan Hospital. Two days later he was transmitted to Guangzhou Military General Hospital owing to a deteriorating condition. He was discharged from hospital on January 10. Later Huang was confirmed as the first reported Chinese SARS patient. He once lived in seclusion due to the tremendous pressure of the epidemic and recently picked up the courage to meet the media and help medical workers find the source of SARS.

Unexpected first

Q: You contracted SARS in early December last year. How much do you still remember?

Huang: Yes, previously I was very healthy, and if I had had a fever or headache, I would be all right on the day after taking some medicine. I felt sick and weak on December 5 and 6 and had a fever of 38 or 39 degrees centigrade several days later. But I didn't care about it as I thought I had a touch of the flu. Like other chefs, I am susceptible to heat all day. I thought I was ill because of the suffocating warm air. I called my family and they asked me to go home. We rural families are particular about warding off evil spirits or something like that, so I went home.

Q: How long had you been sick by then?

Huang: About one week. I was critically sick when I was at home and was sent to Heyuan Hospital. Two days later I was severely ill and was transferred to Guangzhou.

Q: How did you feel?

Huang: I felt very uncomfortable and had difficulty breathing. I had already lost consciousness when I arrived in Guangzhou.

Q: What did you think on hearing so many people were infected by SARS at that time?

Huang: Actually I didn't know that I had contracted SARS when I was discharged from hospital. So I had no pressure at that time.

Q: When were you released from hospital?

Huang: January 10.

Q: When did you know that you had contracted the deadly disease?

Huang: The first time I returned to Guangzhou Military General Hospital for a further consultation, Doctor Huang Wenjie who treated me before told me that I was OK now but many people had contracted SARS and were really severely ill. After that I knew I had been infected with SARS.

Q: Despite awareness of contracting SARS, you still didn't know you were the first patient, did you?

Huang: No, I didn't.

Q: What did you think when you knew that you were the first?

Huang: I was very surprised and felt under great pressure. I thought that it was a tremendous strain for my family and me as it might be very difficult to find work in the future. I come from a village, and supported the whole family. I have already spent a lot on medical treatment.

Double pain

Q: Some people believe your infection of SARS is closely related to your career, saying that it is because you killed wild animals. What do you think of that?

Huang: I know little about medical matters. While I know that I am just a chef in the restaurant, I am in contact of just bowls and pans. The task of killing chooks and ducks is taken by unskilled laborers. I didn't do that and my colleagues haven't been infected either.

Q: There is word on the Internet that Huang Xingchu's mysterious disappearance was due to the expensive medical expenses exceeding 100,000 yuan. Is that true?

Huang: I didn't owe money to the hospital, even one yuan. Amongst the over 50,000 yuan medical expenses, the restaurant boss paid 30,000 yuan and I paid the rest.

Yang Zhe (Vice President of Guangzhou Military General Hospital): I can tell you conscientiously on behalf of our hospital that Huang's whole medical expenses were over 50,000 yuan or so and he didn't owe us even one yuan. The news isn't reliable.

Q: Did you suffer great mental torment?

Huang: Yes. Comparing to the physical pain, the pressure and mental torment worried me for several months as well.

Q: What's your main pressure today? Material or mental?

Huang: Both. As a Chinese citizen, I used to live a normal life. But now it seems that suddenly I am an escaped criminal. Reporters dial my home number one after another and even come to my home while I have no choice but to hide myself.

Q: The media said you were missing. So in fact where were you?

Huang: I didn't go anywhere. I was at home all the time. I knew the reporters came and I asked my families to tell them that I was not in

Q: Why didn't you want to see the reporters?

Huang: Wouldn't that have been very difficult for me if I had met with the media? Who would have had the courage to employ me after that?

Q: Beside reporters, are you afraid of meeting others?

Huang: Yes, I am afraid of others' gossip. Everything is topsy-turvy in my life thanks to SARS. I am an ordinary farmer. However quite unaccountably, I contracted a deadly disease and then became an unexpected famous person. It really caught me between tears and laughter.

Q: You transmitted the disease to some medical workers in Heyuan Hospital. After that, SARS was transmitted very quickly to Beijing, Shanxi and many other places. What do you think of that?

Huang: I have been tormented by a guilty conscience and I kept asking whether the doctors and nurses of Guangzhou Military General Hospital had been infected. I rest assured having been told they were healthy. But I still don't think I contracted SARS from beginning to end because my kids and friends didn't contract it and the doctor in our village who treated me used no prevention measures, but didn't contract the disease.

Q: Don't you feel a little remorseful?

Huang: Of course I do. Although I have no idea how I contracted SARS, if it was me who really transmitted it to so many people - I do feel guilty. I don't want to transmit the disease to others and I never dreamt that I would catch it. Maybe I am a hard luck man, while I am really sorry for that. I read the newspapers and watch the TV reports everyday, very carefully

Q: Are you scared now? You know, many people died of SARS, while nobody knew SARS when you contracted it

Huang: I am very scared now. So I am sincerely thankful to Guangzhou Military General Hospital and Doctor Huang Wenjie. The first sentence I said when I regained my consciousness was thank you doctor, I got a feeling of coming back to life.

Is he Patient Zero?

Q: Huang Xingchu and his family still doubt whether he was once a SARS patient and he himself went to Guangdong Provincial Center for Disease Control and Prevention for further diagnosis as well. As the doctor in charge of his case, what do you want to tell us?

Huang Wenjie (director of Inhalation Therapy Department of Guangzhou Military General Hospital and deputy leader of Guangdong SARS medical expert team): Huang's symptoms and examinations were all in line with the diagnosed standard. On May 22, he came to our hospital for a further diagnosis. The result showed a high titer of antibodies to the SARS virus in his body. Therefore there is no doubt that Huang was a SARS patient. Moreover it indicates he has a strong resistance to the killer epidemic now.

Q: Can we confirm that Huang was the first SARS patient in China?

Huang Wenjie: The remark that Huang is the first SARS patient in China is incorrect. While the correct one should be that Huang is the first reported SARS patient in the world. Guangdong Provincial Department of Health also agrees to the expression, adding that people knew little about SARS before Huang contracted SARS so it is difficult to tell whether there was any other patient at that time.

Q: Currently some people said Huang is the beginning, infecting others, then to Guangdong Province and the whole country. He is the first point of the infection chain. Is that right?

Huang Wenjie: It's not right and unfair to Huang for there is no scientific basis. According to our investigation, Huang didn't infect anyone when he was in Shenzhen and he infected a few people, including medical workers in Heyuan. After his arriving at Guangzhou Military General Hospital, no more were infected by him. The government has investigated seven cities with their each first SARS patient, finding no relationships between them.

Q: What's your greatest wish now?

Huang Xingchu: I am a normal man and my greatest wish is to have work at once so as to support my family. Several days after I returned to the restaurant, the income of the restaurant dropped from tens of thousands to over 2,000 yuan. Even for me, I felt embarrassed to go back again. But the boss was very kind and didn't blame me. He recommended me to work in a newly opened restaurant. I feared I might put him to more trouble and I didn't go there. However, I do want to resume my work for I am a deft hand at cooking Kejia dishes. I sincerely hope that society won't despise people who have fully recovered just like me. We are healthy people. This is one of the reasons why I met the media with courage today. Also, I hope we can find the source of SARS, develop the vaccine and keep the epidemic under control as soon as possible.

Huang Wenjie: The recovered people are not infective. I hope our society can understand that.

Donating blood

On the morning of May 21, Huang Xingchu and his family took body examinations and had his blood taken for testing under hospital's arrangement. Then Huang donated 150 cc to the hospital for extracting antitoxic serum and using it in treating other SARS patients and scientific research in the days to come.

(China.org.cn by Li Xiao, June 9, 2003)

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