Not again! China accused of covering up lethal bird flu

Some things apparently never change, even though I’ve read countless articles and posts about how China has learned and grown and matured following its war on truth during the SARS debacle not even one year ago.

Today in the Straits Times we read how China is again accused of covering up a deadly and highly contagious disease. I can hear Barbra Streisand in the background: “Memories….”

China was on Thursday facing allegations that it was the source of the Asia-wide bird flu outbreak as the World Health Organisation asked for an explanation of the deaths of two Hong Kong tourists a year ago.

The respected British weekly New Scientist said it believed the outbreak began in southern China in early 2003 after a poultry vaccination scheme went wrong and that it had since been covered up.

The report has put the spotlight back on the two dead tourists who visited southern China in February last year. The WHO has asked the Chinese government for more information as part of efforts to establish the history of the bird flu outbreak which has been detected in 10 Asian nations.

‘It’s definitely worth getting a final conclusion on the case,’ Beijing-based WHO spokesman Roy Wadia said on Thursday.

An eight-year-old Hong Kong girl fell ill and died in south-east China’s Fujian province in February last year while visiting her family.

Her father died 12 days later after returning to Hong Kong, and post-mortem specimens showed he had come down with the H5N1 strain of the bird flu virus which has claimed 10 lives in Vietnam and Thailand.

The WHO last week asked the Chinese health authorities for more details about this case, although it has warned about making any premature link between the two deaths and the current bird flu outbreak.

‘There could have been several emerging sources,’ said Mr Wadia, adding that so far the UN health body had received no response.

The New Scientist, quoting unidentified health experts, said the outtbreak ‘probably’ began in China.

‘A combination of official cover-up and questionable farming practices allowed it to turn into the epidemic now under way,’ said the magazine.

The funny thing is that I have planned to take a week’s vacation in Vietnam in March, just as a year ago I planned to take a trip through Yunnan. SARS ruined all those plans, and I literally fled the country from Guilin as transportation was being shut down. Is the same thing going to happen again, this time with bird flu? I want to think not, of course, but the similarities are amazing.

Update: This is the complete New Scientist money quote: “After strenuous denials, Indonesia has admitted the H5N1 virus has been spreading there since August. Thailand admits it had it in November. China says the disease was first detected this week. In fact, the outbreak began as early as the first half of 2003, probably in China,” New Scientist says in its latest print edition. “A combination of official cover-up and questionable farming practices allowed it to turn into the epidemic now under way.”

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