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China Bird-Flu Data in Doubt
posted by admin on 27/04/06

Unreported Cases Of Pneumonia Make Death Toll Uncertain

Local health officials in China have failed to report possible human cases of bird flu to the central government, according to a person familiar with the matter, raising the possibility that some officials may be concealing suspected cases and that the death toll in China is higher than the official tally of 12.

"The central government was quite upset from receiving information late from local officials," said this person, who has spoken with officials at the Ministry of Health. "They weren't happy."

Mao Qunan, spokesman for the ministry, said there's no sign that local authorities in the provinces are actively suppressing information about confirmed human cases of bird flu. Instead, he said, the problem has been that some hospitals haven't been reporting cases of severe pneumonia in which the cause isn't known and could be the deadly strain of avian influenza known as H5N1.

"The hospitals in the rural areas are not timely," he said, "because they don't realize the cases are very important and need to be reported to the ministry." He declined to specify which hospitals or provinces have been slow to report cases.

But on its Web site, the Ministry of Health on Tuesday reiterated a sharply worded statement warning authorities that coverups or delays could risk spreading the disease. The statement, first released in late March, said that some medical institutes had "failed to quickly report on 'pneumonia cases with unknown causes' " or avoided using the term by diagnosing them simply as severe pneumonia.

The statement also said that "some local governments failed to urge their institutes to do their job in time; some health authorities failed to respond quickly to reports, and some pneumonia patients who had had contact with sick or dead poultry were moved to other hospitals without guidance, risking the spread of infectious diseases."

Public-health officials in Beijing have been quick to report confirmed cases of the disease to the World Health Organization and have even invited foreign scientists to government labs to collaborate on research. While routine government censorship still prevents some information about avian influenza from getting to the public, the Ministry of Health has publicly reported 17 confirmed cases of the disease, the most recent of them last week. Twelve of the cases have been fatal.

But some international health experts have long feared that China's real challenge would be ensuring that local health officials in remote areas and far-flung provinces quickly reported possible cases of the disease up the ranks to Beijing. They, and the Chinese government itself, are keenly aware of how an early response to severe acute respiratory syndrome was bungled three years ago.

In the initial stage of the SARS outbreak, in early 2003, the Chinese government didn't fully cooperate with international scientists and even tried to conceal the outbreak. Independent scientists in China and Hong Kong played a critical role in exposing it, sometimes defying the government in doing so. SARS eventually killed about 800 people world-wide.

Avian influenza has decimated flocks across Asia over the past several years, and in recent months has spread to Europe and Africa. The number of people who have been infected by the disease remains relatively small, with only about 200 confirmed cases since late 2003. But scientists fear that if avian flu, which can now pass from birds to people, becomes readily transmissible from human to human, it could spark a pandemic and claim millions of lives.

Write to Nicholas Zamiska at

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