Posted by: Frederik Balfour on February 3, 2009
Is China covering up a new outbreak of bird flu? Certainly there seems to be very strong evidence it is. There have already been eight reported cases of humans contracting the potential deadly H5N1 virus, from which five people have died this year. And despite the fact that Hong Kong officials have been finding dead birds infected with the virus washing up onto its shores in recent days from the mainland, China has not made any official statement concerning an outbreak among birds. At least one Hong Kong health adviser to the government, Lo Wing-lok, says the government “just isn’t admitting” to the problem according to Bloomberg.
If this is true, both Chinese health officials and the state media must share the blame. Surely after so many human infections people must be asking questions of how the caught the virus, as human to human transmission is highly unlikely. But China has a horrible track record of squelching bad news at the cost of public safety, usually with the complicity of the local media. Back in 2003 Guangdong provincials covered up the SARS epidemic for 22 weeks before informing neighboring Hong Kong. By that time it was too late, and nearly 300 people died of SARS in Hong Kong, as did hundreds more worldwide. You would have thought that China had learned its lesson back then.
But as last summer’s melamine milk scandal showed, China is still unwilling to inform the public of health hazards in a responsible and timely manner, with tragic consequences. Had the problem come to light sooner, the lives of four infants who died from poison milk might have been saved, and while hundreds of thousands of other kids might have avoided contracting kidney disease.
How many more people must die before Beijing takes the muzzle off its health officials and reporters?