WHO CRITICIZES CHINAS HANDLING OF SARS INFORMATION


2004-01-13
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Agency still has few details on newly confirmed SARS case

WASHINGTON�The World Health Organization (WHO) has criticized China's handling of the recent re-emergence of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in recent days, saying that it has yet to receive detailed information regarding two of the newly reported cases, RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese services report.

While WHO officials said it was probably not a case of anyone in China deliberately withholding information; they still had very "patchy" details about the second case�recently confirmed as SARS�of a 20-year-old waitress in the southern city of Guangzhou.

"We don't think the problem lies with the Ministry of Health because we have excellent relations with them. So, we think the problem lies somewhere with Guangdong," WHO's Western Pacific spokesman Peter Cordingley told reporters.

Cordingley, who is based at WHO's regional office in Manila, said details about the waitress' case were "patchy," and no details had been given yet about the more recently announced suspected SARS case, a 35-year-old Guangzhou man.

"About the 35-year-old man, we know nothing," Cordingley said.

The provincial health authorities also failed to inform key SARS specialists on its own patch of the latest developments in the re-emergence of the disease, the first in China since July 2003.

While the Guangdong Provincial Health Bureau had already informed the Health Department of the Hong Kong government Sunday that Guangdong about the 35-year-old man, when the Hong Kong media asked the deputy chairman of the Guangdong Communicable Disease Control and Prevention Center Sunday about it, he said he didn't know.

He said: "I didn't know that there was such a case." When asked if there was a problem with government communications, he replied: "It is the responsibility of the provincial health department to inform me."

Other experts say the delay was related to uncertainty around this latest case. "Now we in Guangdong have three cases, which are certainly different from last year, and very different from the very clear path of infection that was identified in Taiwan and Singapore, so it is very difficult to diagnose this case," Xiao Zhenglun, deputy head of the Guangzhou Respiratory Illness Research Institute, told RFA's Cantonese service.

Xiao said the delay in communications was because Chinese medical experts had been unable to trace the path of infection to the latest patient, and were therefore unable to conclusively identify this case as SARS.

Hong Kong media also reported that some journalists attempting to discover whether a man in a hospital in Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong, had SARS, were subjected to harrassment by Chinese officials.

Hong Kong journalists in Shenzhen had experienced intimidation, obstruction, and hustling away by the authorities. Some journalists had even had items like video tapes and mobile phones confiscated, the reports said.

However, a member of staff contacted by RFA at the Shenzhen hospital concerned denied that the man had SARS. The official Xinhua news agency said Tuesday that the man had "regular pneumonia," and not SARS.

The Chinese Health Ministry confirmed Monday that a 35 year-old Guangzhou man was a suspected case of SARS. The man began to feel unwell and run a fever on Dec. 31 and was taken to the Guangdong Provincial People's Hospital. Medical experts from Beijing and Guangdong agreed in a meeting that this case probably was SARS.

The emergence of SARS in China continues to be bound up with the flow�or lack of it�of information in China. Effective public relations is still a very recent concept to government officials, who have a strongly ingrained habit of caution and non-disclosure.

Last week, the editor-in-chief of the Southern City News , a cutting-edge newspaper which broke the story that SARS had re-emerged on Dec. 26, 2003, was detained by state prosecutors for eight hours. His detention was criticized by the Paris-based press-freedom organization, Reporters Without Borders, which said it sent a signal that SARS information was not to be freely reported.

SARS�which infected 5,327 people in China nationwide from November 2002 to June 2003 and killed 349�re-emerged this season in a 32-year-old television producer, whose diagnosis was confirmed earlier this month. He left the hospital last week and was pronounced recovered. #####

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