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We Indeed Are What We Eat

It's typical for humans to shirk responsibility and shift the blame onto voiceless animals when something bad happens to us.

They won't protest. They won't lodge appeals.

Civets were declared Public Enemy No 1 in China after the first new case of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in months was confirmed in Guangdong Province on January 5.

The animals are suspected of being the source of the deadly virus.

The local government handed the gentle animals a blanket death sentence, which was carried out with ruthless immediacy. Some 10,000 civets were exterminated last week.

A team of experts from the World Health Organization and Chinese health authorities, seeking to trace links to the confirmed case, swooped in on animal markets and a local seafood and wildlife restaurant in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong.

Also on the hit list were rats, cockroaches and other pests deemed possible carriers of the deadly respiratory illness.

The systematic slaughter was part of a public clean-up scheme to rid the city of potential health hazards.

Unlike the human criminals who enjoy the right to appeal, our four-legged or two-legged friends are deprived of that privilege.

SARS continues to haunt Guangdong, even though China, having made extraordinary efforts, appears to have contained the outbreak. In January, two suspected cases of SARS were reported in Guangdong besides the confirmed case.

Caused by a corona virus, SARS is one of a family of viruses that can cause animal disease. Investigations have looked into whether the virus might have formed from animals.

But without solid proof, the outright slaughter of thousands of civets cannot be justified.

Dogs have better luck than the civets. They are off the kill list.

However, they had a hard time in spring and early summer of last year when SARS wreaked havoc on China.

With fear of the deadly disease and rumors that the virus can be transmitted from household pets to humans, many owners left their furry friends on the street.

Throughout the crisis, it seems we have concentrated on blaming animals for the disease while doing no examination of what we ourselves have done.

If the virus in animals jumped to humans, we probably made it possible.

In Guangdong Province, almost everything appears on dinner plates. The local people are well known for their willingness to "eat anything with wings apart from an aeroplane, anything with four legs apart from a table, and anything that swims apart from a submarine."

Found to carry a SARS-like virus almost identical to that discovered in humans, wild animals including civets were banned from menus on April 28, 2003. That ban was overturned once the SARS outbreak subsided.

The collective deaths of civets parallel the mass extermination of chickens to stamp out "bird flu" and the wholesale butchery of cows to defeat mad-cow disease.

Are animals the real culprits for these human diseases?

In his excellent book Plagues and Peoples, author William H. McNeill pointed out that many of the distinctive infectious diseases of human beings got their start in animals, particularly domestic animals.

Measles is probably related to canine distemper, and influenza to a disease in hogs.

Clinical and experimental evidence has led many scientists to suspect that mad-cow disease has made the jump as well. The infectious agent responsible for the British mad-cow epidemic was given ample opportunity to mutate into a human pathogen.

It is thought that stricken cows ground up, processed into feed, and fed to other cows created a cycle of intense infection that eventually landed on people's dinner plates. After repeated exposure to this infected meat, a group of human beings, especially susceptible due to genetic or other reasons, developed a human form of the illness.

Feeding the ruminate-derived products or animal protein to cows significantly accelerates the rate of their growth.

Risks come along with people's wild pursuit of profit.

Still, the study on how human beings acquired the AIDS virus is striking.

Research suggests that chimpanzees and human beings each acquired their versions of the AIDS virus the same way -- by killing and butchering other primates infected with similar microbes.

The prevailing theory of how the first human became infected is that about 76 years ago, someone in central Africa cut himself while butchering a chimpanzee for food. The animal was infected with simian immunodeficiency virus, which evolved into human immunodeficiency virus in its new host.

The simian virus then mutated into HIV and spread among humans.

The lesson is crystal clear. If we cannot manage our mouths well, we will be exposed to new hazards.

It is gratifying to read something positive in the ongoing SARS control measure.

Civets are again off the dinner menu. So are other wild game favourites like snakes and wild chickens.

The confirmed case of SARS on January 5 heralded the closure of wild animal markets in Guangdong Province.

Hopefully, the closure will mark a permanent change -- wildlife markets should quite simply be banned.

The wild game will not end up in dragon, tiger and phoenix soup (other ingredients typically include cobra and chicken), a concoction credited with lifting the libido and boosting blood pressure.

SARS has been a harsh lesson for us all. But harsh lessons should make good results.

I'm praying that this time around, those lessons will really sink in.

(China Daily January 17, 2004)

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