China expects to decode in five years a snail fever susceptibility gene that may help to improve diagnosis and prevent the disease, which currently plagues 843,000 Chinese, from developing into the final stage.
"The gene will help doctors find out who of all the snail fever sufferers will end up to be a terminal patient," said Dr. Li Yuesheng, director of Hunan Institute of Parasitic Diseases based in Changsha, capital of central China's Hunan Province.
Among the sick only about 1.8 to 3 percent will reach the final stage, which is characterized by a protuberant belly filled with a build-up of fluid in the abdomen, he said.
Dr. Li has just won an international research scholar award for infectious diseases and parasitology at the US Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and will be getting 3.5 million yuan of research grants in the coming five years, about 84,000 US dollars annually.
Li, who has contributed greatly to snail fever research over the past 32 years, is the first Chinese scientist to get the grants.
Snail fever, also known as schistosomiasis, is a parasitic disease that slowly eats away at the liver, intestines and spleen. It is second only to malaria in the number of diseases it causes.
The World Health Organization now estimates that some 200 million people worldwide are infected and 120 million display symptoms, while another 600 million people are at risk of infection.
In central China and particularly in hot and humid Hunan -- home to 66 million people and one of the country's most important bread baskets -- snail fever still poses a major health risk, said Dr. Li.
According to a latest survey by the provincial health department, Hunan makes up almost one-quarter, or 210,000, of China's total infections.
The disease also plagues Hubei, Jiangxi, Anhui, Jiangsu, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces.
(Xinhua News Agency July 2, 2005)