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China hiding bird-flu cases: expert in Beijing has the 'virus in every corner of the country,' Hong Kong virologist says
By Geoffery York
Friday, December 9, 2005 Posted at 4:58 AM EST From Friday's Globe and Mail
Hong Kong - Despite growing pressure for openness, Chinese officials have concealed bird-flu outbreaks in several provinces for many months this year, a leading scientific expert says.
"I don't know if they are brave enough to admit that they have the virus in every corner of the country," said Guan Yi, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong who has analyzed nearly 100,000 bird-flu-virus samples from across China.
"Quite honestly, some provinces have the virus and they still haven't announced any outbreak. I can show direct evidence, even though China is still trying very hard to block my research. The government doesn't do any surveillance studies, but they say there is no outbreak."
He gave the example of Yunnan province, in southwestern China, which shares a border with Vietnam. More than 90 people have died from the bird-flu virus in Vietnam, yet the Yunnan officials denied any outbreak of bird flu in their province until Nov. 17. In reality, the virus has been circulating in Yunnan for months, according to Dr. Guan's data.
His disclosure will add new weight to the mounting concerns that Chinese officials -- especially at the local level -- are concealing information about bird-flu outbreaks.
China has a long history of suppressing bad news. It tried to cover up the SARS epidemic in its early stages in 2003. Later, it denied any outbreaks of avian flu throughout 2003, until finally acknowledging its presence in early 2004. Most experts believe the virus has actually been circulating in China for the past decade.
Observers are skeptical of China's assertion that only five human cases, the most recent announced yesterday, have been discovered in China so far, despite the dozens of outbreaks among poultry. They note that Beijing has prohibited any unauthorized reporting of bird-flu outbreaks and has tightly restricted all visits to affected regions.
"The outside world has no way of verifying the information," the Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily commented in an investigative report last month.
"The Beijing authorities are imposing a tight blockade on news from the epidemic-affected areas," the newspaper said.
"There are now numerous clues indicating that some people are covering up the epidemic situation or are too afraid to make the epidemic situation known to the public."
Most recently, police arrested a farmer who blew the whistle on an outbreak of bird flu in Anhui province in central China. The farmer, Qiao Songju, was arrested six weeks after he alerted the government to an outbreak that infected more than 2,000 chickens. His lawyer says he has not been allowed to visit the farmer, who has been in detention for two weeks.
China has been slow to share its official bird-flu data with foreign experts, but Dr. Guan has used his own network of sources to gather virus samples. He blames the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture for failing to acknowledge the extent of bird flu among poultry flocks.
"Why has this virus been burning for 10 years like a fire?" he said.
"Ask the Chinese MOA. They should not avoid the question. It's obvious that it's out of control in China. It started off in Guangdong province and now the whole of China has the virus."
Only one Chinese laboratory is officially allowed to conduct tests for bird flu, and it is directly under the government's control, he noted.
"If you check the MOA website, it's very funny. One column announces all the outbreaks in the foreign countries. But in China, it's all good news."
In the eyes of the Chinese officials, any honest information about bird flu could be a threat to their jobs, Dr. Guan said.
"The leaders say they are working very hard, because they don't want to sacrifice their political future. But for the international community, they have nothing to share.
"They don't want to lose their prestige, their power or their position, like the Health Minister who lost his job in the SARS outbreak. They want to mask things.
"That's why they only allow one laboratory to do any work. Then they have only one version, and they can manipulate the figures."
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