Vowing to Beat the Bug
In the wake of an increasing numbers of schistosomiasis cases reported in recent years, Zuo Jiazheng, along with his five-decade experience in studying the tropical parasitic disease that has plagued regions along the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River, has been thrust into the media spotlight.
In a recent interview with CCTV, the valiant gray-headed man who has been infected seven times admitted, “I have not beaten it. We swore to annihilate schistosomes upon graduation in 1954. I have come to realize that it was a merely youthful grandiosity.”
Schistosomiasis, characterized by the gradual destruction of the kidneys, liver and other organs, had been widespread in south China via contaminated water before it was brought under control in 1958. For Zuo, who happened to work on the forefront of epidemic control, however, it meant only the beginning of a long, arduous battle.
Statistics show that the number of Chinese suffering from schistosomiasis has fallen from 11.6 million to 843,007 during the past five decades, with most remaining carriers living along the Yangtze River in the provinces of Hubei, Hunan and Anhui.
The disease is subject to recurrences, however, due to frequent flooding, which leads to the spread of oncomelania that serve as intermediate hosts for schistosome along the Yangtze River. It has increasingly spread to urban areas, hitching rides with rural migrant carriers in recent years.
In 2003, China reported 1,114 acute schistosome infections, at least a 22 percent increase from the previous year. By the end of last year, 19 confirmed cases and several suspected cases had been found in Shanghai, presumably from the south.
The situation has aroused serious concern from China’s Central Government. This past February, the State Council set up a working group on schistosomiasis headed by Vice Premier Wu Yi, granting 200 million yuan ($24.16 million) toward researching a solution. A national program to contain the rapid expansion within up to five years is expected before August.
All this pleased Zuo somewhat. At 70, he vows to contribute the rest of his life to beating this bug.
“It is far from enough to depend only on health departments to fight the epidemic. This is a challenge to the whole of society as it involves agriculture, transportation, fishery and water conservancy when rural labor migrates and infects new places.”
“There are also ‘human factors’ [that cause the spread of oncomelania], like the building of water conservancy projects, lack of financial support and slow progress in scientific research.”
Deputy Director of the Shanghai-based National Institute for Parasitic Disease Control and Prevention
“I can’t recall how many times I have been infected by the disease. I get infected and then cured again; get infected, cured again. We get infected by the snail fever as easy as people in other places catch a cold.”
A 40-year-old resident of the schistosomiasis-afflicted Yueyang City in Hunan Province
“Although many people from around lakes leave, they go to cities to work. They won’t pose as a source for infection because oncomelania, schistosome’s host, on which it depends to propagate, can’t survive there.”
Member of the Hunan Provincial Expert Panel for Schistosomiasis Control