What about the “Beijing Cough”?

As I have been fighting a vicious cough since the middle of December, I delved a bit deeper into what is called “Beijing Cough”.
So, I created a new page, see on the right side: Beijing Cough: a myth?
Feel free to comment (directly to me). I will keep the page updated to clarify some of the misgivings around that issue that makes our life in Beijing, at times, miserable.
With the pollution, my American family has cancelled the idea of visiting us here in Beijing. The risk of getting adverse reactions for their family (including two young kids) is unfortunately too real – they have some issues with allergies and asthma.

The deadly threat from our bad air

In Beijing we are all supposed to be happy with the great efforts of our beloved leaders to achieve so many blue sky days.
Unfortunately, it’s all a lie and for the past 12 months we live with average AQI values of 150 (i.e. the readings of PM2.5 thanks to the USA Embassy). We all know the Embassy is right and representative of the whole Beijing city area. (the normal limit would be AQI=50)
Even official sources in China are starting to question the validity of the official figures, as reported in China Daily.
Well, in Hong Kong they are in great panick because API figures are going over 100. Lucky people! Can we have your air pleeeeeaaaase?
According to recent studies by the University of Hong Kong and other institutes, air pollution causes about 10,000 deaths per year in the Pearl River Delta including Hong Kong and Macao.
The South China Morning Post reported details on 20 January (see here abbreviated version). Their values: they measure as in Beijing, i.e. micrograms of PM10 per cubic meter.
See here a typical reading from the USA Embassy in Beijing:
21 Jan 2011; 12:15; Past 24hr: PM2.5 avg; 52.9 micrograms; AQI=130; Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups
HKU links pollution to increased mortality risks (by SCMP – Elaine Yau)

(pictures are all from SCMP)
For every kilometre of reduced visibility, an additional 70 deaths occurred every year over a decade, a University of Hong Kong survey has found.
Chief researcher Professor Anthony Hedley said visibility was strongly negatively correlated with air pollution, especially with particulates and nitrogen dioxide.
“Loss of visibility kills people,” he said. “The higher the pollutant concentrations, the lower the visibility. Every kilometre in reduced visibility increases our mortality risks.”
The team, which analysed 360,000 deaths between 1996 and 2006 along with data from the Observatory, took into account factors including humidity, temperature and the incidence of flu epidemics.
Postdoctoral fellow in community medicine Professor Lai Hak-kan said that the average visibility in the city over the past four years was 12.6 kilometres, well below the norm of 30 kilometres from a 50-metre structure.
The university’s associate professor in community medicine, Dr Wong Chit-ming, said the situation was alarming. “The visibility in the city was five kilometres yesterday, with 84 micrograms of particulates every cubic metre,” he said.
The World Heath Organisation sets the minimum safety levels at 20 micrograms every cubic metre.
But Hong Kong set the level at 55 micrograms.
Rob Chipman, the chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, said last week that pollution was becoming one of the most serious threats to the city’s competitiveness.
The findings of the survey were published in the academic journal Environmental Research.

Beijingers: clever to enjoy the good life

On Sunday afternoon (after skipping a boring meeting in the Great Hall of the People) I was urgently requested for another meeting: sauna club.
Most foreigners here are unfamiliar with the huge saunas that have become immensely popular, see earlier entries in this blog. My favorite – because it’s so close to home – is still “Pacific Sauna” (Taipingyang) on Gongti Bei Lu. But there are others every 500 m.
I navigated through the city in a taxi, guided by mobile phone instructions, to arrive somewhere just outside the third ring road close to Fangzhuan Bridge (Fangzhuan Nan Lu), where the others were waiting. Together with a Chinese couple, good friends, our whole family discovered a new Sauna House “ Crystal Island”. Being far away from the foreigner’s favorite places I was (as usual) the only foreigner. The staff is always puzzled:
– that I am there
– that I do speak some Chinese
– that I seem to know how it works.
Staff and other visitors are overly curious to make anatomical comparisons, only possible when completely naked. (yeah yeah, I know, Christmas Tree?)
The second question from a “fuyuan” was how much money I made every month. Suddenly my Chinese became rusty.
Those clubs are huge. Chinese families go there with kids and we all find ourselves back (in pajamas) in the vast buffet restaurant. Sun ate like 15 crabs at a lightning speed, Valerie and myself competed for most raw salmon. Once completely stuffed we ended up flat in a large relax room where we got the traditional foot massage. Plus the acrobatic cupping – the girl quickly puts a flame in a cup and then “floooops” it over your soles in a quick succession. If I’d try it I would probably burn the Club. The girl I had was 19 years old, from Jilin Province and came to Beijing when 17… Sun was flattered as the guy who gave her massage declared her feet to be “very nice”. He was from Shandong and (exceptionally) over 40 years old.
Always a great experience except seeing the Chinese smoking everywhere, inclusive in the large sauna area, while eating fruit and cooling down from the sauna (and all naked). What the heck, I also lighted up one (sorry).
Recession or not, you won’t notice it in the clubs with mostly middle-class people as clients. It’s actually cheap – with the foot massage and all, something like 200 to 250 RMB per person. Maybe with the recession, people will even go there more: where can you have sauna, showers & all, free drinks, unlimited food and rest & watch TV for 100 RMB? You get even a free towel and underwear to take home.

Health care in USA and China: personal experience

Tom Daschle has been appointed by Obama to try to pursue a goal that has not been reached after decades of efforts: “affordable, accessible health care for every single American”. As they said, 45 million Americans have no health insurance and face runaway costs in the sector.
The U.S. certainly has one of the most advanced health care facilities and specialists. But cost is exorbitant and even so service can be very soso (unless you spend a fortune). One of the main reasons I would never go and live there.
In China, the sector has some parallels with the U.S. Actually, health care over here can be excellent, if you have the right guanxi and your credit card ready. While sometimes expensive (in the foreign clinics), it can also be very cheap. But if one has no money, well, too bad, you’ll die at the doorsteps of the hospital or you ruin the whole family. Genuine health insurance is here still pretty rare. Chinese save so much because they know they have nobody to rely on for their retirement and health. Now China is trying hard to improve this but it will be a daunting task. China might learn from the U.S. – if – they succeed in their plan.
My experience here has been tested in 2008 with a couple of unpleasant problems. Chronic bronchitis, a result of the horrendous pollution, is now under good control thanks to all the good care and recommendations of Vista Clinic and, to a certain extent, Peking Union Medical College Hospital (“Xiehe”). Vista is rather expensive but service is great. Xiehe is typical Chinese: chaotic, a labyrinth of buildings and consultation offices, complicated paying methods, all often frustrating. But they have some real good doctors and costs are very low. For a foreigner going there without help, forget it.
My nasty back problem made me look for many opinions as I wanted to make sure that I got the right advise. Xiehe was pretty good (after all the frustrated waiting) and medication received deemed correct.
The first opinion was at Beijing Chaoyang Traditional Hospital, a less-known hospital in Gongti Nan Lu where I go most – it’s next door. The hospital is now renovated and though “very Chinese” it is rather easy and quick. Little or no waiting to get X-rays or laboratory tests done. Cheap. Their medication, after due verification, was not as bad as originally thought but their conclusion was depressing: “no more running for you”. OK…
They ordered an MRI, done in Beijing Dongzhimen Hospital. Very “Chinese”, confusing and complicated but with help, rather quick. In many countries you have to wait months to have an MRI, here I got it in 24 hours. Reasonable price too I guess.
Another opinion – and more medication – came from Beijing Jishuitan Hospital, a depressingly huge place where you better have a car to go around. And if you don’t have the “guanxi” you won’t have access to the top specialists like I had. So, for me it was OK as I was accompanied by a whole delegation of helpers, drivers, etc. The verdict there was again in line with all other Chinese doctors, though more focused: “no operation”, lots of rest, take it easy etc. Did not dare to ask if running was part of my future.
And no, I did not go and try Beijing United Family Hospital as those guys start having a rather poor reputation (extremely expensive and not always correct & efficient).
The final opinion came from SOS International Clinic (on recommendation from Vista!). The clinic is brand new and real large. Worked out well, expensive – yes. Received the most optimistic opinion: it ain’t so bad (for my age), no operation as for now, just physiotherapy. And: “you can still run some more marathons”! No further medication here as what I am taking right now seems OK. Verdict: “lumbar stenosis”, not exactly something to make you happy but considering I must have this since decades and I ran TWO marathons last year… We’ll see.
So, slowly recovering, no travel as for now as sitting in a plane for many hours and suffering in airports is NOT recommended…
Well, time to start writing my book.