Scientists worry about China’s secrecy regarding bird flu

Via CDT, it appears the world’s scientists haven’t forgotten about China’s coverup of its SARS breakout and are concerned thay may see a re-run now with the looming bird flu epidemic.

Amid the blitz of reports on bird flu outbreaks across Asia and Europe, scientists agree one place stands out: China.

It is a special case not simply because China is home to more than one-fifth of the world’s population, but because it holds the grim distinction as an incubator where bird diseases can become lethal to human beings. The last two global pandemics, of 1957 and 1968, as well as the SARS virus and the current strain of avian flu, all emerged from southern China, where the dense mix of people, birds and pigs — often sharing the same back-yard farms — is an ideal environment for viruses to hop and mingle among the species.

But avian flu experts said they have additional reason to be wary of outbreaks here: a history of government secrecy and delay in handling medical crises. While global health specialists credit China with making strides toward transparency and faster response, they also are concerned that China is unwilling to disclose key details about its handling of avian flu, including how it is testing and treating potential human victims.

“We think it is important for the Ministry of Health to share more of what they are doing. We think that that will be helpful for some of the doubts that the international community has,” Henk Bekedam, chief of the World Health Organization in China, said in an interview…..

Most recently, when a 12-year-old girl died of flulike symptoms recently in a part of the countryside that has been the site of a flu outbreak among birds, government officials promptly ruled out avian flu. But Bekedam said WHO can’t endorse that conclusion until it sees the evidence to back it up.

“We would like to know what kind of samples have been taken, what kinds of tests have been done,” he said. “If we don’t receive that kind of detail — we haven’t yet and we have asked for it — then it is very difficult for us to comment.”

The WHO twice requested information but has yet to receive further details about the 12-year-old girl or her brother, who also is sick with flulike symptoms, officials said. A separate WHO request to visit the affected area has not produced a response. Some researchers say this kind behavior reminds them of reporting and surveillance problems in the early months of China’s handling of the SARS virus in 2003. SARS emerged in southern China, but officials did not disclose it for several months, until it had spread to Hong Kong and elsewhere, killing more than 800 people.

Chinese authorities argue that they have corrected that reflexive secrecy in the three years since SARS struck. At a news conference last week, Jia Youling, the top veterinary official with the Ministry of Agriculture, outlined specific flu-control plans and declared, “We have redoubled our efforts.”

But not every subject was so eagerly publicized. Midway through the news conference, a reporter asked a Chinese health official about the death of the 12-year-old girl. Viewers of state television never saw the response; at that instant, the broadcast abruptly returned to regular programming.

Do tigers change their stripes? Did the seemingly dramatic turn-around of the CCP in April 2003 – when they finally came clean and faced the SARS threat – really signify a turning point? Or are we back to square one. I really don’t know, but I’d feel much more encouraged if they hadn’t cut off the reporter’s question.

The Discussion: 7 Comments

There were two great headlines yesterday:

From the Guardian:
China pledges transparency over bird flu

From SCMP:
Beijing tightens control on media reports [of bird flu]

Note to the Chinese authorities: Pick one, and then get back to me.

November 3, 2005 @ 2:08 am | Comment

My feeling (completely subjective and all that): they’re getting a bit better, but we’re nowhere near full transparency.
Thus, we had reports of bird flu in Hunnan, Anhui and Inner Mongolia, only after the world community started asking, “How come there’s bird flu in Russia, Thailand, Indonesia, Taiwan, Japan, etc, but there isn’t any in China?”
It’s better than during SARS, when the government was still in denial phase well into the crisis, but it doesn’t seem that they’re going to offer up any information freely and willingly. They still have to be pushed by international opinion.

Leakingstatesecrets wants to know how many more outbreaks there are that we haven’t heard about, and I think I agree with him. Those chickens that the Taiwanese authorities found being smuggled into Taiwan with the virus. The port authorities were sure that they came from a “southern Chinese” port, ie Guangzhou or Xiamen. Yet we haven’t had any reports of outbreaks there.
(Sorry, I just checked the article in the China Post, and it only says a “Chinese port” not a southern Chinese port. Even so, I still suspect Guangzhou. Where did SARS come from after all?)

November 3, 2005 @ 4:26 am | Comment

News from the island:

British team: no “hidden” bird flu cases in Asia

“But there have been no human cases reported from China, despite numerous outbreaks of the virus in birds.

This had led to fears that cases were going unreported.
But Sir John Skehel, director of the MRC’s National Institute for Medical Research, and one of the researchers who went on the fact finding mission, said he had been persuaded that this was not the case.”

November 3, 2005 @ 9:57 am | Comment

The fact that China is not cooperating with the WHO and not supplying valuable samples for research leads me to presume something sinister. Sinister such as an engineered PLA virus that has gotten out of its cage?

I know, I know. Just something to think about.

November 3, 2005 @ 11:05 am | Comment

That’s pretty conspiratorial, Tian Li. Personally I hesitate to blame maliciousness where incompetence and corrupt self-interest already fit.

November 3, 2005 @ 4:46 pm | Comment

Unfortunately, you are most likely correct.

November 4, 2005 @ 2:37 pm | Comment

Did you read that BBC article?

Let me quote:

“But Sir John Skehel, director of the MRC’s National Institute for Medical Research, and one of the researchers who went on the fact finding mission, said he had been persuaded that this was not the case.

“I don’t think the people known to have been infected are the tip of the iceberg. It is a relief, because avian flu is in over 60 provinces in China.” ”

Over 60 provinces?

For a start I thought that China had 22 provinces, 5 autonomous regions and 3 municpalities.
Secondly, providing we can trust Sir John Skehel despite his confused geography, it seems that he’s saying that bird flu is widespread in birds in China – like, pretty much everywhere. His team were only checking whether or not there were unrecorded human infections. Which they think there aren’t. Which is a very good thing. But they imply that this is only because

“it is relatively difficult for this strain of bird flu to pass from birds to humans.”

Thus, this news seems only partially reassuring to me.

November 4, 2005 @ 10:27 pm | Comment

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