Poisoned diner launches food safety crusade

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 March, 2007, 12:00am

Eight months after he fell ill from eating contaminated snails, mainland-born Taiwanese volunteer worker Yang Fangfang is still a sick man. But he is turning his misfortune into a public service for those seeking information on food safety and health problems with the help of the internet.

The brain infection caused by the roundworm Angiostrongylus cantonensis, which he and more than 160 others caught from eating Amazonian snails, has damaged Mr Yang's nervous system and doctors have told him that if he does not recover in two years, he never will.

People can become infected by ingesting the roundworm's larvae in raw or poorly cooked snails, slugs, freshwater prawns, frogs, fish or fresh produce such as lettuce.

The right side of Mr Yang's body is still racked by pain and he loses strength and sweats profusely. In the first month of his illness, no hospital could tell him what was wrong and his pain drove him to search for information online, but he found no relief. Mr Yang, 32, thought he had contracted an incurable disease and drew up his last will. The well-travelled Mr Yang has visited more than 50 countries, but said it was 'the first time I've come so close to the threat of unsafe food'. 'After leaving hospital, I decided to set up a website to help people who care about their food and health,' he said.

Mr Yang, who was the manager of a fisheries company, quit his job two years ago to be a volunteer at Peking University's Sun Bone-marrow Base, which maintains a database on bone-marrow transplants.

'We will provide information about health but not only one or two kinds of diseases. We hope more people can take part in the activities by writing 'wiki' contributions and blogs,' he said.

There is not a lot of health information on the internet in Chinese, nor is it as well organised or easily accessible as on English-language websites, which gave Mr Yang the idea of launching his own.

His Dayee website was launched in Guangzhou in January. Doctors were invited to write blogs about eosinophilic meningitis, the disease caused by the parasite, and cancer and hepatitis B, major killers on the mainland.

About 400 doctors and medical personnel have contributed to Mr Yang's Wikipedia clone and more than 100 have posted their blogs on his website. He said that blogs and wiki were the best methods for people to express themselves and search for information.

'We hope all internet users can be providers of health information by using the wiki function and we are inviting more doctors to be our professional bloggers,' he said.

'The government has to take responsibility for the supervision and education of food safety. But successive food contamination cases show its ability is limited. At such times, the media is the most efficient method of communication and should play a more significant role,' Mr Yang said.

Officials have welcomed the self-protection campaign, while doctors urged the government to improve its communication system to reduce food safety problems.

'It is good for people to learn more about food safety by themselves,' said Guangdong Health Department's vice-director, Liao Xinbo , who started his own blog last year. 'The blog is a good platform for doctors to share their knowledge with the public.'

Ji Aiping the Beijing Friendship Hospital doctor who first made the definite diagnosis about eosinophilic meningitis last summer, said doctors needed more channels to share their information with the public and professionals.

'If the laypersons have no knowledge, they won't be aware of the threat around them so they have to educate themselves,' she said.

'Even though I do not believe websites can solve all food safety problems, I don't think there are any alternatives.'