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Avoiding Avian Flu While Traveling in China

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The Global Scavenger Hunt is now in Shanghai, China. Reputed to be in clichés the Paris of the East and Pearl of the Orient in days gone by. Nowadays it is literally hard to see the towering building known as the Oriental Pearl through the haze of smog that blankets this city of 20 million from The Bund across the murky Huangpu river--that last month saw 16,000 diseased pig carcasses floating down stream. If there was such a thing as the Four Horsemen of the Environmental Apocalypse, China would be it: the water is unfit for human consumption, the air patently unhealthy, the country-side has been neutered, and now we are caught in the throes of a menacing health alert -- another outbreak of Avian flu (a.k.a. the H9N7 avian influenza). Welcome to the new capital of the 21st century.

Part of my job as Event Director of the annual around the world travel adventure competition known as The Global Scavenger Hunt, is to make sure all the participants stay safe and healthy. Doing this requires that I monitor all the secret destinations we are heading to in the weeks prior to our departure for, among other things: severe acts of Mother Nature (typhoons, floods, earthquakes and volcanoes to name a few), various political intrigues (protests, coups, contentious elections, state of emergency decrees and mad men with missiles), along with and other potentially disrupting or troublesome issues that may impact our teams when visiting places (currency crisis, summit meetings, acts of terrorism, visiting heads of state and disease outbreaks).

Well, on April 1st -- initially I thought it was a cruel joke like pizza-flavored Tic-Tac's -- it was announced by Chinese health authorities that bird flu had reared its ugly head again in the Shanghai region. Our first Global Scavenger Hunt destination! It was migratory season and the chickens had come home to roost.

In 2003 you may recall, SARS, which also started in south eastern China, was one of the two main reasons we had to cancel our 2003 around the world event a decade ago -- the outbreak of Bush's war of choice on Iraq was the other.

Anyway, I immediately started following the daily World Health Organization's (WHO) reports, the local Chinese press and micro-blog coverage, as well as our own Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) response and travelers' information. I watched with concern as confirmed cases of the influenza grew by a handful a day to the several dozen it is today along with the growing death count that today stands at 13. You can't minimize that.

Yet on the other hand, the un-Hollywood fact of the matter is that all these cases have risen from a population vector of nearly 200 million and there is no proof yet of any human-to-human transmission. It is strictly an animal-to-human transmission. That is good news too because a slate wiper can really ruin a decade's worth of human progress and halt economic globalization in its tracks. No one wants another SARS epidemic, or bout of Spanish flu circling the globe and culling the herd of the defenseless young, sick and elderly.

Indeed, as I write this from my 69th floor perch high atop the Jin Mao Tower, a 420-meter modern Art Deco skyscraper dominating the Pudong landscape, there have been no calls for travel restrictions by either the World Health Organization or the U.S. State Department -- which is probably a little distracted by that man with missiles to the north of us.

So what to do? What would be my man-in-the-street and in-country travel suggestions for those brave enough to enter the outbreak area? Well, this morning before I sent the teams out on day one of their local Shanghai area site-doing scavenger hunt, and not wanting them to run afoul while in Shanghai, I gave them a briefing on the topic with all the data points available to me.

This might ruffle a few feathers with the tourism board, but aside from practicing proactive hygiene and other food safety measures, here are my top 10 things to avoid in Shanghai as a traveler during the recent avian flu outbreak (My sincere apologies to David Letterman!):

1. No wet markets where chickens are "processed" for dinner. They do things different here in China, no plastic-wrapped boneless chicken breasts in aisle three... they eye-ball their dinner.

2. No squab on a stick as pigeons may be a migratory transmitter. Oh, sorry, you didn't know squab was pigeon! The things you learn traveling.

3. No less-than-over-hard runny eggs for breakfast. And push away that soft boiled egg too.

4. Avoid alternative modes of popular transportation used by farmers, such as chicken buses!

5. Attracting and posing for pictures with flocks of pigeons in local parks and gardens is probably not a good use of your time.

6. Although well-cooked poultry is fine, you might want to rethink that kung pao chicken or chicken satay. And chicken soup may not be the cure for what ails you.

7. Look on the bright side: eating out in Shanghai is cheaper as KFC is offering super special promotions.

8. While visiting China and jet-lagged up at 3 a.m., maybe you should change the channel when Alfred Hitchcock's Birds comes on.

9. Try to forget the menacing virus; odds are you'll probably succumb to the smog or a traffic accident.

10. Three words: designer surgical masks! They are all the rage among fashionistas here.

Enjoy China. Out next stop is Vietnam.