After WHO Request, China Reports Two More Bird Flu Deaths

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 12, 2006

BEIJING, Jan. 11 -- The World Health Organization identified China's latest bird flu victims Wednesday as a 10-year-old student and a 35-year-old street vendor who succumbed to the H5N1 strain of the virus last month in different parts of the country.

Roy Wadia, the WHO spokesman in Beijing, said the Chinese government reported the deaths during the past 48 hours in response to the agency's request for updated data on bird flu. The man died Dec. 30 in Jiangxi province in eastern China and the girl Dec. 16 in southern Guanxi province, he said.

The new deaths increased to five the number of people in China who have succumbed to the virus.

The Health Ministry's spokesman, Mao Qunan, spoke at length about bird flu at a news conference Tuesday but did not mention the additional deaths. Mao's omission and the delay in reporting the deaths to WHO fed concerns about the reliability of official information on the extent of bird flu among China's 1.3 billion residents.

International officials have complained that they fear they are not getting official data fast enough from the Chinese government. Wadia refrained from criticism of the latest delay, but suspicions are easily aroused because of China's record. The government sought to conceal the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, and Chinese officials have long been reluctant to share information with outsiders.

Since the SARS controversy, the government has pledged to deal squarely with health information. But in addition to the complaints from international health officials, Chinese reporters have said they are frequently forced to seek information about China's bird flu situation from WHO or foreign publications because China's official sources refuse to provide it.

"News about the virus often takes a detour to reach domestic audiences," Hu Shuli wrote in the Oct. 31 issue of Caijing business magazine. "It is first covered by foreign media, and then picked up by the domestic press. Journalists sent to infected areas also say local officials have not been cooperative enough."

At his news conference, Mao said the outlook on bird flu in China is "not optimistic" because the country's rural health care system is ill-equipped to identify the H5N1 strain and guarantee swift treatment.

Mao said 66 percent of China's township-level hospitals and 90 percent of its county-level hospitals are part of the country's reporting system for infectious diseases. That leaves thousands of hospitals outside the loop, meaning ministry officials might not learn of bird flu infections until long after they break out in remote areas.

Twenty-eight outbreaks of bird flu and eight cases of human infection have been reported across the country since October. The Agriculture Ministry on Tuesday reported a new outbreak killed 16,000 quails during the first week of this month on a farm in Guizhou province in south-central China.

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