The World Health Organization said today that China is underreporting cases of the SARS virus and maintains secret military health files that make it impossible to control and monitor the spread of the disease in the Chinese capital.
WHO researchers, speaking in unusually blunt language, said at a news conference that the government has misled the public about the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. Officials said the number of patients infected with the virus in Beijing could be 200, more than five times what the government has acknowledged.
"We have very clearly said you have an international community over here that does not trust your figures," said Henk Bekedam, head of the office of the World Health Organization in Beijing.
For unknown reasons, three hospitals in the capital run by the People's Liberation Army have treated SARS patients but have declined to report them to China's Health Ministry, WHO officials said.
Wolfgang Preiser, a German medical virologist, said Chinese military doctors provided information about the outbreak during a visit this week to Military Hospital 301 and Military Hospital 309, but only on condition that the WHO not release the data. Contrary to the claims last week by China's health minister, Zhang Wenkang, the military "has its own reporting network that is not linked in with the municipal one," Preiser said.
Bekedam said the WHO investigators "raised these issues in a very open and frank manner with very senior officials. We've said very clearly that the bug doesn't differentiate between military and civilians."
Chinese officials have reported 37 cases of SARS and four deaths in Beijing. But Alan Schnur, an infectious disease specialist at the WHO, said there were probably between 100 and 200 cases.
There were several new reports of SARS infection in the capital.
Beijing University suspended classes in its economic and international relations departments after an economics professor contracted the disease, sources at the school said.
Evidence is emerging that hospitals in Beijing are becoming a source of infection. A reporter on a program called "Son of the East" on China Central Television was diagnosed with SARS after he went to People's Hospital for an unrelated medical procedure in early April. He died Tuesday, state-run news media reported.
A retired art designer in at the New China Movie Production Co. was infected with the virus after he went to Jishuitan Hospital for treatment of a leg fracture, a source close to the family said. During his stay at the hospital, two of his roommates died. Doctors later attributed the deaths to SARS. Several friends and family members who visited the man at the hospital also developed symptoms. The art designer also died Tuesday, according to state-run news media.
SARS is believed to have originated in November in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. Since then it has killed more than 160 people around the world and sickened about 3,300. SARS has officially killed at least 65 people and infected 1,445 in China -- nearly half of the cases reported in the world. Chinese doctors have concurred with the WHO's assessment that the country is vastly underreporting the extent of the epidemic.
In Hong Kong, meanwhile, authorities today reported five more deaths, pushing the toll there to 61. Hong Kong has reported 1,268 cases. WHO researchers in Beijing also say a surveillance network in China intended to trace people with suspected links to infected patients is not working.
"The reporting system needs to be improved urgently," Preiser said. "For the data we saw, we were unable to trace the cases back to their source." The WHO said the tracking problem was dangerous because health care workers need to trace all sources of infection if SARS is to be controlled. In addition, Preiser said, not all of the 300 hospitals in Beijing were part of the reporting network.
In some cases, the Chinese successfully traced infections but did not release the information, the WHO officials said. For example, on April 6, a Finnish official from the International Labor Organization died from the disease in Beijing. Beijing's Center for Disease Control traced the source of infection to a Chinese man who sat next to the Finnish man on China Airlines flight 112 from Bangkok to Beijing. However, Schnur said, the information was withheld.
Bekedam said he was concerned that unless China allocated more money for public health, poor people would not be able to pay for treatment if they contract SARS.
"We do believe that the government has not invested in health in the last 30 years," he said. "The government has left it to the people to pay for health care And who among the poor will be able to afford treatment?"