From A World to Win News Service

Snail Fever in China: Scourges of Old Come Back to Life

Revolution #006, June 19, 2005, posted at

We received the following from A World to Win News Service:

June 6, 2005. A World to Win News Service. "I have no money, I have no plan," said Liao Cuiying, a Chinese peasant woman from a village surrounded by Dongting Lake. The lake is infested with a water-borne parasite called schistosomiasis or snail fever. With a swollen stomach and aching joints, Liao's body has steadily been consumed by these parasites over the last eight years.

An article in the February 23, 2005 New York Times described how this plague is sweeping through the villages surrounding the lake. Some 80% of the people living around it are infected. The farmers are faced with a choice of two kinds of slow death: if they so much as touch the water for a few seconds, the authorities now warn them, they will get sick and even die—but for most peasants, telling them not to let the lake's waters touch their skin is like telling them not to breathe the air that sustains them. Nationally, 900,000 people have been infected by this disease and an estimated 30 million are now at risk in China.

Dongting Lake was once considered a fabulous source of life for these villagers. They fished in it, used its water to irrigate their fields, washed their vegetables and clothes in it and obtained their wood by cutting down trees in the damp soil beside the lake. But that was during the years when China was socialist, particularly after the mid-1950s when a successful national campaign swept the lake of snails that served as host bodies for the parasites. People then received free medical care and the snails were largely wiped out. Since the coup that restored capitalism in China after Mao died in 1976, the constant attention needed to control the disease waned. Now snail fever has returned in full force, all of its destructive power restored with the restoration of the capitalist system.

After malaria, schistosomiasis is the second most prevalent tropical disease in the world. It affects about 250 million people—roughly equal to the combined population of Germany, Italy, France, Spain and the UK. The parasites leave the snail and swim to a human or other animal and penetrate the skin almost immediately. Once inside, they travel to the heart and lungs. But the worst thing is that when they reach the blood veins, they develop into adult worms and lay eggs. This causes chronic inflammation of the liver and intestines, horrible pain and eventually death. The disease can be prevented by interrupting the life cycle in three different ways: 1) Making sure that humans and animals never touch water, so that they are not infected. 2) Keeping human and animal waste (feces) containing live parasite eggs from ever touching water, so that the disease does not spread. 3) Eliminating the snails. Once the parasite eggs hatch in the water, they cannot survive unless they find a snail body to live in. Without snails, eventually snail fever will disappear. All three steps must be vigorously carried out, because there can never be a hundred percent in achieving any one of them, but the last is the key—and the hardest.

Away with All Pests

The British doctor Joshua Horn lived in socialist China from 1954 to 1969. His classic book Away With All Pests describes how snail fever as well as other physical and social ills were eliminated. Dr. Horn listened to many peasants tell stories of their life before and after the elimination of schistosomiasis. In Ren Tun village he heard the following:

"In this village we have 1,327 mu of cultivated land and 183 families totaling 671 people organized in five production teams. In the old days, in addition to the burdens which weighed us all down, we had the burden of schistosomiasis. It pressed us sorely and all but wiped us out. In the twenty years from 1930 to 1949, 500 died in this village... By the time of Liberation only 461 people were left of whom 449 had schistosomiasis. We didn't know anything about the disease, not even its name. We just called it big belly disease. Some thought it wasn't a disease at all but a punishment for some sin committed by our ancestors.

"I knew a poor peasant called Ren Chang. We used to play together as children. He grew up and married and there were five in his family. Then his father and mother died of big belly disease and he went to work for the landlord. One day he vomited blood and the landlord sent him home without a penny piece for eight months work. He knew there was no hope for him so he strangled himself. Soon after, his wife and children died and the whole family was wiped out.

"Our party secretary had 15 in his family; he is the only survivor. In the second production team there is a family call Lu. Of the 45 in his family, 30 died within a few years...

"The survivors were so weak that they could hardly grow enough grain for their needs No child was born here for seven years before Liberation. We forgot the music of a baby's laughter..."

Big Questions and Struggle Around the Direction of Society

Snail fever was one of many curses inherited from the old society that ruined people's lives. So many people died of this disease that whole villages all but disappeared completely. In 1955 there were 10 million people who suffered from snail fever in the lower Yangtze River valley. If socialism was really to liberate the people and transform their lives, this disease had to be eliminated. The task was huge. But basic political questions about the direction of society were also involved.

One of the most important was whether or not society's resources were going to continue to be concentrated in China's cities. In capitalist countries, the growth of the cities at the expense of the countryside and its people is considered essential for the fastest economic growth, because of the concentration of resources already existing there. There was serious struggle within the party about whether to go for what seemed the best path to quick economic growth, and therefore to increase the gap between the cities and the countryside, or to put priority on beginning to overcome this inequality, leading to a balanced production that is actually more favorable to economic development in the long run. There was a similar question about how much of these resources should go to the peasants. Even though farm work is less productive, in raw economic terms, than industrial production, the interests of the workers seen in the broadest, most revolutionary terms lay with eliminating all the inequalities between the people so as to move toward doing away with social classes and freeing all of humanity.

Another big question was whether or not it was really possible to get rid of snail fever, and if so, how. It was clearly impossible without the full attention and leadership of the party and the mobilization of enormous numbers of people. The party launched a giant campaign, creatively applying concepts worked out by Mao Tsetung. There was struggle inside the party and throughout society about whether to focus on medical care in the cities or try to bring medicine to the peasants in the countryside who had experienced very little health care in their lives up to this time. Through this a multipronged approach was established.

Nurses and other medical workers with enough experience were trained to perform operations. Medical skills were made the property of many people among the masses. Certain traditional practices that had proven medically useful, like acupuncture, were combined with Western medicine to develop a medical system that was effective, accessible and one that people felt comfortable with. People trained to carry out basic medical tasks were later called "barefoot doctors" because instead of using their new skills to get ahead, they would stay in the villages and neighborhoods.

No effort was spared at treating people who were infected. People who had been sick for years needed surgery. China was turning out an unprecedented number of doctors, but at the same time, it was lessening the gap between doctors and the common people.

Applying Mao's Line

As Horn describes, one Maoist concept that was key in this campaign was applying the mass line. This rests on the conviction that ordinary people possess great strength and wisdom and that when their initiative is given full play they can accomplish miracles. The art of leadership is to take the ideas of the masses and concentrate what is correct, to refine and systematize their experience, and on this basis, to decide policies that rely on the people to carry them through. Then they summed up the results to deepen the process.

To mobilize the peasantry against the snails, it was necessary to explain the nature of the illness that had plagued them for so long. This was done through lectures, films, posters and other means of communication. When the peasants came to understand the nature of their enemy, they themselves worked out methods of defeating it. Rivers and ditches were drained and banks tamped down with earth. Mobilizing the masses did not mean issuing them shovels and instructions. It meant explaining things to them, firing them with enthusiasm, unleashing their initiative and tapping their wisdom.

The second concept in the fight against the snails was that of concentrating a superior force to win battles of annihilation. This was the application of Mao's military strategy to this problem. Focal points of attack were chosen. Of the ten infected counties around Shanghai, two were selected as the main targets in the early stages of what was to be a prolonged campaign. Entire counties were mobilized one at a time, with everyone turning out for labor—including soldiers, students, teachers, office workers, administrators and other people from the cities. Medical resources, pumps, river-draining and damming equipment were concentrated in these two counties and, within a short time, the snails there had suffered a mortal blow. Then the forces were regrouped and the attack was directed elsewhere. Gradually, extensive snail-free zones were created.

The third concept was that embodied in Mao's famous "Paper Tiger" theory. Since the snails are harmful to mankind, no matter how numerous, well camouflaged and well protected they are, in the long run they are doomed because man is incomparably more powerful and will eventually solve this problem. On the other hand, snails are a formidable opponent that must be taken seriously. No complacency is permissible. Every battle must be planned down to the last detail, all weapons brought into play. For example, if the sides of the waterways were so covered by reeds or other plants that snails can find refuge among them, flame-throwers were used to burn down the vegetation and scorch the banks. Under bridges, or if a waterway couldn't be completely drained, chemicals were used to destroy the snails. Regular anti-snail patrols cruised along the rivers in canoes, searching for snails.

The feces of a person with snail fever can reinfect the water or soil. Since the peasants had no effective alternative to using human and animal waste for fertilizer to increase crop yields in the fields, a careful method was developed to eliminate the parasites from this "night soil" before it was used.

The above preventive approaches were combined with medical treatment. Testing stations were set up to regularly check the medical situation of the population. While treatment is the weak link and drug therapy does not always solve the problems of the most advanced cases, many people with huge tumors from snail fever received the care needed to enable them to lead normal productive lives. Women were able to have healthy babies, and many formerly dying rural villages came alive with the sounds of children.

To achieve all this on so vast a scale, people needed to see beyond the limits of their own farms or villages. The basis for this began with the formation of the People's Communes in the countryside during the Great Leap Forward. These were economic and political units in which large numbers of villages not only farmed the land together but administered most aspects of local life. This made it possible to carry out huge campaigns like the battle against snail fever and to plan irrigation, flood control, road building and other projects on a big scale, with the knowledge and enthusiasm of the peasants playing the driving role in determining what should be done and how. The defeat of snail fever at this time was an epic yet to be equaled. Even now, imperialist wisdom has it that snail fever is almost impossible to eliminate among the poor. Mao's approach is impossible under the capitalist system.

The Return of Capitalism

With the overthrow of socialism in China, all of this came to a crashing halt. The socialist values of selflessness, cooperation and serving the people were quickly replaced with the capitalist slogan of "to get rich quick is glorious." The socialist policy of narrowing the differences between those living in the city and those in the countryside by pulling Chinese peasants out of stagnation and poverty was reversed. Today the dazzling growth in the business districts of a few major cities like Shanghai seems to mock the suffering in the countryside. In fact, one of the factors making China so important to world capitalism is the vast riches to be gotten from exploiting the labor of former peasants forced by the threat of starvation to come to the cities in search of factory work making goods for export.

With the end of the People's Communes, a few people became the owners of vast wealth and most lost everything, especially the collective wealth such as free medical care. Now not only is snail fever considered to be the problem of those unfortunate enough to live in the infested areas, but even among those people, there is a huge divide between those who can afford medicine and those who must sacrifice to be able to purchase it, and often cannot afford it regularly enough and long enough for the drugs to be effective. The policy of making the best possible medical care for everyone one of society's highest priorities has been dropped, and even the health insurance that has replaced it, which is really no replacement at all, is available only to certain employees, not peasants who are now theoretically "self-employed." In this situation, some people who don't happen to share in the glory of being rich just can't afford medicine. Not only does this situation condemn individuals to death for the rapidly spreading crime of poverty, it perpetuates and spreads snail fever even more, creating a snowballing social problem, including further weakening vast areas of the countryside economically and further destroying bodies and minds. In the old days before the 1949 revolution, China was called "the sick man of Asia." Now, despite Shanghai's glittering office towers, that is an ever more appropriate description, literally.

With this system of exploitation now imposed on the masses in China, is it surprising that diseases like snail fever are once again becoming a scourge upon the people? And what about other diseases like AIDS in Asia, Latin America and especially Africa, where the rapidly increasing mortality rate is akin to genocide? Or bird flu, dengue fever and malaria—all diseases to which solutions could be found if—and only if—the social system that enslaves not only poor countries but also the people around the world were overthrown. Then all of humanity's wealth and its collective and individual powers could be mobilized to end the needless suffering experienced by billions of people across the continents.

( Away with All Pest, by Joshua S. Horn, published in 1969 by Monthly Review Press in the U.S. and Hamlyn Press in the UK, is available from many online book dealers, including