Friday, August 19

The power of suggestion and Bao Jia

"Dear Pundita:
Thank you for replying to my letter yesterday. After thinking over your post I'm now looking at the outbreak from a completely different angle. It has occurred to me that if the disease is really a case of poisoning it needn't be from toxic waste. It could be from high levels of chemical fertilizer or insecticide or even a mixture of the two. Any thoughts on this?
Michelle in Toronto"

Dear Michelle:
How do you plan to test your theory? Michelle, listen to Pundita: you cannot play Erin Brockovich in this situation. Why? Because you cannot collect samples of fertilizer, pesticide, ground water and so on. You cannot review medical records. You cannot interview the villagers in the affected areas -- and even if you could get into the affected areas, the villagers would be silent or they'd lie like a trooper.

A BBC reporter managed to interview one family about the symptoms a member experienced. He wasn't speaking with them but a few moments when village officials showed up and yelled at the family. That ended the interview but even if he stayed on talking, it wouldn't have mattered. The family would have stayed silent.

You've heard of the Mafia's code of silence? That code is nothing next to the code that arose out of China's ancient Bao Jia system, which was dusted off and used to great advantage by Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist party. It allowed the party to create a police state over the entire of Mainland China.

Ten families to one bao. One person errs, his family and the nine other families in the bao must be punished. Ten bao to one jia. So if one family errs, the jia must be punished -- in effect, the entire village. The official line is that the system was disbanded after Chiang Kai-shek's government was overthrown but that's a crock. The CCP (Chinese Communist Party) also found use for the system in order to maintain control in rural areas.

However, all is not lost because these villagers, many of them illiterate, are (like illiterate villagers the world over) on the whole very honest in their speech, if honesty is not met with punishment for the entire village.

So if you want to play detective you'd need to pay special attention to the earliest accounts of the symptoms and their onset. These would be accounts given before Beijing had mustered an official party line about the "pig disease" and sent 50,000 so-called health workers into Sichuan to go door-to-door with leaflets about the disease.

Translation: Your account had better match the symptoms of strep suis that the village boss reads out to you from this here leaflet, if you don't want the entire village to suffer.

But because this public health announcement was door-to-door and village to village, there was a lag time. That's what happened with the BBC reporter; by luck or design, he found a family that didn't know what was going on at the official level, even though by that time it was on the radio. They didn't listen to the radio except for entertainment.

The catch is that the reporter stood out like a sore thumb in the village: he was an outsider. Under Bao Jia, neighbors must keep watch on each other's activities and report them to local authorities. So he wouldn't have been in the village 15 minutes before the village boss knew about it.

The earliest accounts flagrantly contradict the government's line on step suis, and point to sudden onset of illness. Indeed, this point was brought up by the interviewer in the Wong interview. Wong then went to the back of beyond to discredit those accounts. In fact, he got himself tangled up in medical terminology in his effort to discredit the claim of sudden onset.

Why would he do that? When you place the earliest accounts of symptoms (vomiting, foaming at the mouth, severe shock, partial paralysis, hemorrhaging, etc.) next to sudden onset (and sudden death in many cases), it's possibile he wants to turn speculation away an inquiry about poisoning.

If you approach the outbreak by asking if it could be poisoning, you're in a new ball game. You're looking at an entirely different explanation for why some people survive the "disease," which has a high mortality rate -- over 70% according to some sources.

Yet because China's government terms the outbreak a disease, speculations about survival revolve around the strength of the immune system in pigs and humans. These speculations would be red herring if there is no disease. If the illness is due to poisoning, survival would depend on how much of the poison agent is consumed or how much contact the person has with the agent.

As I pointed out in yesterday's post, China's government would go a very long way to suppress that line of investigation. This is because it would lead to questions about industrial pollution and the kind of speculations you've raised.

To answer your direct question -- yes, it's a possibility. If the outbreak is poisoning, it's possible that chemical fertilizer, pesticide, disinfectant or even an unfortunate combination could have created the poison agent. As you pointed out, it doesn't necessarily need to be "toxic waste."

But again, if you're working blindfolded (without forensic samples and reliable medical records in hand), you're wasting your time speculating about the exact source of the poison agent and before you've established a working hypothesis that the outbreak is due to poisoning.

Do you see? You can't get there from here. The most you can do is attempt to exclude the target with the biggest bull's eye. That is why I suggested starting with companies that have been known to produce toxic waste and which have plants in China. You would have to do that first.

Up to a certain point this task could be done by any reasonably intelligent person who has access to a simple database program. First collect all the anecdotal accounts of symptoms you can find. These would include accounts given after China's government put out the strep suis explanation. But you'd want to give special attention to the earliest accounts.

Then go to a medical source for poisoning symptoms and see if you can find a match. Once you have a list of poisons that produce the same symptoms, exclude poisons that wouldn't reasonably show up in pigs or chickens in China; e.g., the venom of a spider only found in the Amazon.

Once you got to that point, it would make your life easier if you got help from an industrial chemist or even a law firm that specializes in cases of poisoning from toxic waste.

You'd be trying to match the list of poisons with firms that (a) manufacture such poisons or (b) whose industrial byproduct produces such poisons, and which has a manufacturing plant in China.

Here is where you would be hampered. As I warned in yesterday's post, it might be hard if not impossible (at least, for a private citizen) to obtain the names and locations of Chinese and/or Taiwanese plants that would fit the bill.

But at least you could look at foreign plants located in the biggest pork processing regions of China. The Taipei Times listed those provinces in the link I provide yesterday.

Not to encourage you in this project but it's not necessarily trying to find a needle in a haystack because no one has tried this approach -- at least, not that we know about. So you could hit it lucky after only a few hours of research and without looking at tens of thousands of companies.

It's entirely possible that a Western pharmaceutical or chemical company has been cited for toxic waste that produces just the kind of poisoning symptoms noted in pig disease. And that it's open knowledge in the trade that the company moved a plant to China to avoid paying a fortune in fines and retooling their entire manufacturing process.

In that event you would be very lucky indeed because then you have a possible source for reliable data on the 'pig disease' that circumvents China's health authorities. If the company clams up -- well, then we're talking about a court order to loosen their tongue.

In short, the journey of a thousand miles might turn out to be many tens of thousand of miles or only a few yards. Yet the power of suggestion has been so powerful in this case that nobody started the journey -- at least, not that we know about.

From the beginning, the outbreak was characterized as a disease by the official sources and anonymous reports posted to Boxun. These were picked up by media outlets in Asia and carried forward by Henry Niman, whose company does vaccine development and who is obsessively pursuing his theory about recombination of lethal viruses. And by Patricia Doyle, who is obsessively pursuing her theory that just about any incurable disease is the result of a biological experiment that jumped a laboratory.

This flood of media emphasis on an infectious disease was given the force of a tidal wave when it coincided with reports of mass deaths of migratory fowl at Qinghai Lake -- deaths reportedly due to H5N1. Discussion about the lethal form of the A(H) virus became entwined with speculations about the pig disease.

The tidal wave of suggestion drowned out the most simple and obvious possibility: At the processing or the raising stage, swine (and chickens in one region) were exposed to a toxin powerful enough to kill a human if ingested in sufficient quantity.

So you can continue to spin out speculations on very thin data. You can continue to attempt to badger China to provide reliable medical data. Or you can try to exclude the obvious before playing armchair biomedical scientist.

Keep in mind that you don't want to fall in love with the poison idea. There could be two factors at work: poison and infectious disease. And it could turn out that the outbreak is indeed solely due to viral and/or bacterial infection. Yet ground that needs to be covered has been ignored.

Setting aside the crummy job of investigative reporting we've seen from every major media outlet, it is bad science to speculate before attempting to exclude a likely possibility. In fact, it's not even science. It's hoodoo.

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