Beijing, birthplace of some of the most prevalent strains of the influenza virus, is bracing itself for
a 'flu epidemic' as the world prepares for this year's version of the bug. The Chinese capital was
heavily hit by an epidemic of the virus last winter, with more than one million residents infected
between November 1998 and January 1999. "Some of the big influenza epidemics originated in
China," says Mark Overton, doctor coordinator at the SOS International medical assistance
company in Beijing. "The problem with the virus is it keeps changing?you get a new virus every
The influenza vaccine for the next few months recommended by the World Health
Organization(WHO) will contain two strains similar to those currently emerging in northern China.
A third strain from Sydney will complete the immunization package, which is strongly
recommended by WHO for the elderly and those with chronic diseases, such as diabetes and
cardiopulminary disease. China, where some of the new strains are thought to originate via
mutation from ducks and pigs, is getting ready to fight a local battle of its own. Public health
officials have already stepped up surveillance on possible mutations of the virus, and are advising
those vulnerable to the illness to arrange vaccinations as soon as possible. The elderly, patients
with chronic diseases, medical personnel, schoolchildren and workers are all being urged to
protect themselves, the official Xinhua news agency reports. It says influenza experts fear the
mutation of virulent strains might weaken the effectiveness of the vaccination.
"Three different types of influenza virus caused serious epidemics last winter," Dong Zhenying, an
influenza expert with the Beijing Station of Epidemic Prevention, was quoted as saying. Influenza
is one of the oldest diseases known to humanity, and as the WHO warns on its "Flu-net" web site,
can also be one of the deadliest. Its ability to kill stems from the fact that the virus can mutate
quickly, often producing new strains against which the body has no immunity. Such a mutation
was responsible for the deadly "Spanish Flu" pandemic of 1918 to 1920 which killed 20 million
people more than the number killed in World War I. Two lesser pandemics in 1957 and 1968
together killed more than 1.5 million people and caused an estimated US$32 billion in economic
damage from loss of productivity and medical expenses. Increased international travel and a hectic
pace of life mean the viruses are quickly transmitted across the planet, leading to more than 100
million cases of the disease in the United States, Europe and Japan alone every year. One kind of
influenza the A-type virus - is also commonly found in birds. The H5N2 "bird flu" virus killed six
people in Hong Kong in 1997, leading to the culling of 1.5 million chickens to prevent the flu
Two new anti-flu drugs, Glaxo Wellcome's Relenza and Hoffmann-La Roche's Tamiflu,
appeared on the market recently, which the WHO web site says could prove to be "extremely effective."
Dog Saves People
A furiously barking dog woke up 25 people and saved them from a flood that destroyed their
houses in China's southwestern Jiangsu province, the Beijing Morning News reports.
Fan Zhibin was awakened by the small dog just before dawn on October 12 and found it pulling
his quilt towards the door. He opened the door and flood water poured into the house. Fan picked
up his pregnant wife on his back and rushed out.
Neighbors also awakened by the dog ran out into the street just before their houses collapsed
under the weight of water roaring from a huge underground water pipe that had broken. Only after
the disaster was over did they notice the dog had disappeared, the newspaper says.
Archaeologists have found 51 pagoda pedestals near the mausoleum of the Xixia dynasty emperor
in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. The experts uncovered small Buddha figures and
cone-shaped pagoda forms from the clay pedestals, along with crushed bones and ashes, the
Guangming Daily reports.
The pedestals, covering 3,000 square metres, were discovered on a hillside near the Helan
mountains, where the mausoleum was located. The archaeologists say the pagodas were built in
different periods spanning the Xixia (1038-1227) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties. Xixia was
established in the 11th century by a number of ethnic groups in what is now Ningxia. It was
conquered by the Yuan dynasty in 1227. Du Yubing, deputy director of the Ningxia Archaeology
Research Institute, says the pagoda group will be useful in researching Tibetan Buddhism and the
evolution of the Xixia culture.
Y2K Dragon Babies
Mainland doctors are witnessing an upswing in pregnancies as mothers time their babies to be
born in both the new millennium and the Year of the DragonÑthe most auspicious of the Chinese
zodiac. A narrow hallway outside the obstetrics ward at Beijing's Union Medical Hospital has been
filled to capacity for months as expectant women wait for up to four hours to see a doctor.
"It's very auspicious to have a baby born in the Year of the Dragon because it means the child will
be very powerful and victorious," says one mother-to-be. "The fact that next year will also be a
new millennium makes it even more lucky."
While the Year of the Dragon begins on February 5, some couples have also been excited by the
idea of having a "Y2K baby" born on January 1.
"I wanted to have my baby on New Year's Day, but the doctor tells me it will probably be born in
late December," says Li Li, 31. "These things are hard to plan," she sighs.
Dr. Bian Xuming, director of the hospital's gynaecology department, says the number of pregnant
women passing through her examination room is up five percent this year. She believes the desire
to have a "dragon baby" is a factor in the sudden upswing. Zhai Guirong, a departmental director
at the Beijing Obstetrics Hospital, also says the number of pregnancies treated each month has
risen steadily. A spokeswoman for the State Family Planning Commission says: "For the Chinese
people, next year is quite special. It's possible many couples will hope to have children." But she
predicts there will not be "too large" an effect on population growth.
For Dr. Bian, the rush for dragon-year births is distasteful. "It wasn't like this five years ago, so I
think mainlanders are being influenced by Hong Kong and Taiwan," she says. "We are a
government-controlled hospital; we can't encourage this superstition."
But Zhao Ling, expected to give birth just days into the Year of the Dragon, recalls an ancient
saying that dragon children will be able to "swim beneath the sea and fly through the sky." "That
means these children can do anything," she says with a confident smile.