Authorities in south China tighten SARS surveillance, step up civet cat crackdown

Authorities in southern China are cracking down on a burgeoning illegal civet cat trade to prevent an outbreak of SARS in the coming months, state media said Monday.

Some 7,000 health inspectors have been mobilized in Guangdong province, where SARS first emerged in 2002, and have checked 10,000 restaurants for civet cats, the Xinhua News Agency said.

Civet cats, mongoose-like animals, are considered a delicacy in southern China and suspected of spreading severe acute respiratory syndrome to humans, although the original source of the virus has not been determined.

In January 2004, Guangdong banned the raising, selling, killing and the eating of civet cats. But health departments have been receiving increasing reports of illegal trade in the animals since November, Xinhua said, citing Huang Fei, deputy director of Guangdong's health department. No other details were given.

"The possibility of a SARS outbreak still exists in Guangdong in spring," Luo Huiming, an official with the Guangdong Center for Disease Control and Prevention, was quoted as saying by Xinhua.

A strange new disease that was eventually identified as SARS was first reported in Guangdong in November 2002. It was spread by travelers to dozens of countries and killed 774 people worldwide before subsiding in June 2003. There were 349 deaths reported on the Chinese mainland, reports AP.

China was heavily criticized for being reticent about releasing information on its outbreak and has since been trying to overcome a reputation of foot-dragging in cooperating on investigating emerging diseases like SARS and bird flu.

During the recent inspections, a live civet cat and several frozen ones were confiscated and 18 restaurants were fined, Xinhua said, Huang said.

Another restaurant in the city of Foshan, was fined 30,000 yuan (US$3,800, EUR3,000) for buying civet cats, Xinhua said.

Restaurants are required to make a "written commitment on no trading of banned wild animals like civet cats," Xinhua said. "Those who fail to keep the commitment will get their licenses revoked."

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