Protecting yourself from health hazards in China

Scratch the surface of 'modern' China and you'll find many of the problems of 'old' China, an impoverished 3rd world country beset by inadequate infrastructure, poor sanitation, dubious hygiene, and ill health.

Plus, the sheer mass of humanity means if anything goes wrong, it goes wrong 'big time', so you need to be alert to the potential health risks and ways of protecting yourself.

Health hazards to watch out for:

Spitting in China

While the Chinese government has made several attempts over the years to curb unsavory practices like spitting, and the SARS outbreak of 2002 decreased its incidence in major cities, it remains a common site throughout the country.

You‘ll see it everywhere; the street, restaurants, buses. If you‘re on a plane, you may hear a Chinese person hacking up regularly into a napkin. It happens because traditional Chinese medical practice says swallowing phlegm is unhealthy.

But phlegm isn‘t the only thing freely spewing from the orifices of Chinese locals; sneezing without covering your nose also occurs quite often.

(We wouldn't dream of illustrating this topic with photographs of the subject matter. Instead, here are some cute kittens.)

Bathroom hygiene in China

Then you have the public bathrooms. Be prepared to get low in the loo, squat toilets are prevalent in China, though you will find Western toilets in major cities.

They can be in putrid disarray, and you should always bring your own toilet paper. If you forget, you can buy it for about ¥2 from a convenience store or at restaurant or bar when ordering your next Tsingtao.

Unfortunately, you can‘t simply flush this stuff down the toilet; you must put it in a bucket to avoid clogging up the already poor plumbing systems. These joyful places are not always free, either. Some public facilities cost from a few mao up to ¥1.

(By wishing you good luck, at least they admit you might have some problems using them)

China pollution alerts

If you have asthma, you‘ll want to plan ahead before you arrive in China, as pollution is a serious problem and things like the "black lung" can exacerbate your condition.

All the cars, people and construction account for China containing 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities, according to the World Bank, and those with allergies, skin conditions and problems with their throats may feel sick.

Do not drink water straight from the tap, buy it bottled, even if you intend to boil it.

Poor building safety in China

Other health hazards may involve unsafe building work resulting in improperly constructed and non-insulated apartments, office high rises and more.

In November 2010, a 28-story Shanghai apartment building fire killed more than 50 people and injured an additional 90. Unlicensed welders were charged with accidentally starting the blaze.

The incident came just a year after a 13-story apartment building in the city still undergoing construction collapsed and killed one worker. The cause was a pile of excavated dirt next to the building.

Shanghai in particular has experienced a sharp uptick in construction in recent years. The city built new subway lines for the 2010 World Expo, and there have been renovations to highways, the two airports and high rises.

While you‘re unlikely to fall victim to a building collapse or fire during your stay, be mindful of areas undergoing construction, and fire codes are pretty non-existent.

"Many buildings here are quit old and definitely do not follow any kind of fire codes. There are no fire escapes, smoke detectors or sprinkler systems in my building. Once my elevator was broken and I walked the stairs, and many sections were blocked by people's garbage and furniture." said one expat'.

Disease epidemics in China

There are other far more serious health concerns. China seems to be the place where anything and everything can get you sick.

The country saw an outbreak of Pneumonic plague as recently as 2009, and Avian Influenza, or bird flu, continues to affect poultry and spread to humans. Bird flu is more common in rural areas, but avoid animal markets or farms to be on the safe side.

China carries the second highest incidence of rabies on the planet, with as many as 2,400 people dying each year from the disease.

Hand, foot and mouth (HFMD) disease and a related virus affecting the intestines can also occur and are most rampant in the summer in children and infants.(note: don't confuse this illness with Foot and Mouth, which is a nasty disease in animals).

Everyone who comes into China is also screened for H1N1, and if you show even the slightest sign of illness, you may be quarantined.

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