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For the past two weeks one picture has dominated Chinese newspapers sold on Flushings Main Street: the image of an Asian man, woman or child with a mask over the mouth and a worried look in the eyes.
The mask is intended to help ward off Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, the mysterious illness which broken out in Asia last month and has killed close to 100 people worldwide.
Bombarded with such images and news of relatives back in China, Vietnam and Singapore concerned about the disease, the Asian population in Flushing has begun to take precautions against a possible outbreak in the city.
The masks, known as particulate respirators, are flying off the shelves of pharmacies in Flushing. Travel to Asia from the Flushing area has fallen off dramatically. And root of indigowoad, the barklike Chinese herb said to prevent the flu as well as SARS, is in short supply in Flushing.
Flushing is home to one of the largest concentration of Asian immigrants in the city. Many of those immigrants travel to Asia on a regular basis.
First detected in China, SARS has infected more than 2,000 people worldwide. It symptoms include high fever, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue and headaches. Scientists believe it is spread through the air after an infected person coughs or sneezes, which has prompted people across Asia to wear masks in an attempt to avoid catching the disease.
So far seven New York City residents are suspected of having SARS, according to the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. All of the victims had recently traveled to Asia, have mild symptoms and are recovering, according to the DHMH.
There has been no sign that any transfer of the disease has occurred in the city, said Andrew Tucker, a spokesman for the DHMH.
While no serious cases have emerged in the city to date, fear of SARS has certainly had an effect on the local economy.
Starside Drugs, a pharmacy with three locations in downtown Flushing, has sold hundreds of the small white masks, called particulate respirators, said Peter Koo, the owner of the stores.
Everyday a few people buy them, he said. Sometimes I buy 20 or 40. I sold 200 to a group of people going on a tour overseas.
Koo said many buy the masks to send to relatives in Asia, where the masks are in short supply. Other purchase them just in case an outbreak occurs here in Queens, he said.
Some people do wear the masks in Flushing, but Koo said he believed they used them to prevent breathing in the polluted air, a common practice in China.
I dont think we have to worry in Flushing, he said.
While Starside Drugs has seen a small upturn in profits from selling the masks at prices ranging from $2 to $6, other downtown Flushing businesses are hurting as a result of the SARS scare.
Fred Fu, the owner of Shine Travel on Main Street and president of the Flushing Chinese Business Association, said sales of tour packages to Asia have been down about 80 percent over the last month.
That market lost a lot, he said, dismissing concerns about SARS in Queens. Its not a risk, he said.
Others, however, are taking the disease more seriously.
Timothy Chuang, the owner of the NY Tong Ren Tang, an herbal store with two locations on Main Street, often crushes indigowoad into powder and cooks it, hoping the herb will help prevent the flu and SARS.
I cook this continuously so my employees can have it, he said.
The herb has been highly sought after in recent weeks. The substance is in such strong demand in China that shipments to the United States have been cut off, Chuang said. Some were even buying the herb to send back to relatives in China, where it has become extremely expensive.
He estimated his business had a one-month supply left.
Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 141.
©2003 Community Newspaper Group
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