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Dead-Pig Tide and the Ongoing Danger of China Epidemics

March 11 (Bloomberg) -- The dead pigs started appearing on the riverbanks of Shanghai’s iconic Huangpu River on March 4, and by the weekend, state media were reporting that 900 had been found floating in the river, the source of much of the city’s water supply. The reports didn’t offer an explanation for where the dead pigs had come from or how they had died. Still, one thing was absolutely certain in the articles and the social-media chatter: Nothing good comes from a dead-pig tide.

Early today, Shanghai Daily reported that the number of dead pigs floating in the river had increased to 1,200. Later in the morning, the Global Times, a national paper, reported that the number had crossed “at least 2,200” and was expected to rise. By early evening, the government had retrieved 3,323 carcasses from the river, with more still floating toward downtown.

Most disturbing of all was news -- first reported by local suburban papers and spread through microblogs -- that upstream pig farms had been struck by an epidemic that had killed 20,000 pigs in January and February. According to these reports, as far back as January, dead pigs were appearing on the sides of roads in suburban Shanghai. News of the epidemic was partly confirmed by state media today.

The virus at work isn’t transmittable to humans, but that’s little reassurance to the 20 million Shanghai residents left to wonder what effect virus-laden pigs have had on the water supply. It’s a question intensified by the efforts of farmers, if not officials, to cover up the epidemic that appears to have caused the dead-pig tide.

Why, if there was a deadly epidemic among livestock outside of Shanghai, was the public not notified? Where were the public-health officials when the disaster became so significant that farmers presumably had no choice but to dump the carcasses in the river that runs through taps all over the city?

For those who follow public health in China, the timing of this epidemic and likely coverup is particularly ironic, coming at the 10th anniversary of the SARS epidemic that sickened thousands, killed hundreds, and shut down Beijing and Hong Kong for several months in the winter and spring of 2003. The suspected cause of SARS was a virus transmitted by bats in south China. The epidemic was blamed on government officials determined to cover up a health disaster exploding on their watch. By the time those officials, and the Communist Party itself, acknowledged that there was a problem, it was too late: The epidemic had crossed national borders and was killing widely.

Over the past several weeks, Chinese news outlets have been running features looking back on the mistakes made, lessons learned and steps taken during SARS outbreak. They call for increased monitoring, unspecified mechanisms for notifying the public and relevant public-health institutions, and greater transparency. Needless to say, whether it was the fault of farmers or public-health officials, none of those standards were met in the run-up to the dead-pig tide.

To be sure, this isn’t SARS, but for a global-health community dependent upon Chinese transparency in the event of another epidemic, official Chinese reticence, if not ignorance, about whatever and whoever led to thousands of virus-laden pig carcasses in Shanghai’s water supply is deeply worrying.

(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog and a contributor to the Ticker. Follow him on Twitter.)

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