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Civet and the coronavirus

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We are publishing a shocking passage about the causes of the virus from our sprint “Spread: Zoonoses and the Next Pandemic.”

The meat of wild animals causes terrible epidemics. This happened at one time with atypical pneumonia (severe acute respiratory syndrome – SARS caused by the SARS coronavirus, the precursor to COVID-19). It has been established that the source of SARS was the civet, a predatory mammal from the civet family. But before this was proven, many tragic events took place.

In November 2002, a 46-year-old man from Foshan in Guangdong, China, fell ill. He was in a fever, breathing was difficult. His wife, aunt, and her husband and daughter who attended him in the hospital also fell ill. The patient could not say where he got infected, but the medical history recorded that he participated in the preparation of exotic dishes, which included the meat of snakes, chickens, and cats. This set is quite typical for Guangdong, where you can buy the most exotic animals for consumption on the market. A few weeks later in Shenzhen, the chef of a restaurant who was preparing wild meat fell ill. He worked in Shenzhen, lived in the city of Heiyuan, where he returned feeling unwell and went to the doctors. He was admitted to a hospital, where he infected 6 staff members, and then transferred to a hospital in another city, in an ambulance, in which the doctor who transported him became infected.

Shortly thereafter, 27 more cases of an incomprehensible illness were recorded in the vicinity of Guangzhou – with headaches, chills, fever, cough with bloody sputum and destruction of the lungs. Some of the sick were medical workers, one was a cook, whose dishes included snakes, civets, foxes and rats. Then the authorities already drew attention to a strange disease, which they called SARS. But pneumonia is a symptom, it was necessary to look for the causative agent of the disease. Any pneumonia that is not associated with a known infection can be considered SARS. The authorities sent out a leaflet to hospitals describing the typical symptoms of the disease and measures to isolate such patients.

This was the end of it, but not for long. A patient appeared, whom epidemiologists call “super-carrier”. This is the person who infects the largest possible number of people, significantly higher than the average. In this case, it was a seafood and fish merchant. Some scientists emphasize that during an outbreak, it is these people who should be isolated first, but this is not always possible. He was admitted to a Guangzhou hospital in 2003, infected at least 30 health workers in two days, and after his condition worsened, he was transferred to another hospital to specialize in the treatment of SARS. There, he infected two more doctors, two nurses and an ambulance driver – during transportation he coughed, spat, and vomited. During intubation, already in the hospital, a tube was inserted into his throat, through which mucus and phlegm were pumped out of his lungs, and all this was sprayed on the floor and the gowns of the medical staff. In this hospital, he infected 23 doctors, 18 patients and their relatives, and 19 members of his own family.

He himself managed to survive, but most of the infected died. In the same hospital, he contracted a patient, a doctor by profession, who brought the disease to Hong Kong. It infected an elderly woman from Canada who returned home and caused a SARS outbreak in Toronto. An American businessman became infected with SARS during a visit to China, ended up in a hospital in Hanoi, Vietnam, where the famous infectious disease specialist Carlo Urbani arrived. He was able to determine that the new disease is not bird flu, which also causes SARS, but something more serious.

Unfortunately, he became infected and died himself. However, he managed to convince the Vietnamese government to declare quarantine. From November 2002 to July 2003, 8096 people in 29 countries were infected, 774 of them died.

There is no effective drug against the SARS coronavirus. However, its carrier showed up in the markets of China and Hong Kong – it was a civet. There are many wild food lovers in China and Hong Kong. The consumption of wild animals, according to tradition, contributed to the acquisition of good luck and prosperity. The animals were sold directly in the markets. Many were specially grown on farms, but there were also some directly caught in the wild. After the SARS outbreak, they were all examined, and the coronavirus was detected only in the civet.

The SARS-like coronavirus has been found in bats of the genus Rhinolophus, which are often eaten in Chinese and Hong Kong “wild food” restaurants.

Kwammen, author of Spread, advises that if a Chinese restaurant offers you a bat stew, choose noodles, but his advice is too late.

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