Health Officials in China's Hunan 'Kept Quiet' Over Tuberculosis Outbreak

china-school2.jpg A Hunan center for disease control conducts training on prevention and control of infectious diseases and the management of information on such outbreaks, April 6, 2016.
Public Domain.

Students at a high school in the central Chinese province of Hunan are returning to class following a mass outbreak of tuberculosis in August, official media reported.

The Aug. 19 outbreak at the Taojiang No. 4 High School sparked emergency diseased control measures from the county and provincial centers for disease control and prevention (CDCs), the state-owned China Daily newspaper reported.

TB experts were called in from the Hunan Tuberculosis Control Institute to help treat suspected cases. According to the institute, they treated 29 confirmed cases, five suspected cases and 38 students undergoing preventative medication and management, for a total of 72 cases.

But the government's handling of the outbreak has prompted criticisms over a lack of transparency when the new cases were initially discovered.

"They're making this official report now, talking about how well they handled it, and so on," a Chinese journalist who asked to remain anonymous told RFA. "Usually, the CDCs don't suppress this sort of information, so this is quite unusual."

"But now they've clammed up, and won't talk to us. We are having to get everything from the students and their parents."

According to the China Daily, health officials also supervised a sterilization operation at the school's premises.

Students found to be infected were asked to stay home and provided with computers and internet access to follow classes online, the paper said.

An official who answered the phone at the Taojiang county CDC on Friday declined to give further details, however.

"We can't give out any information from here, but if you need an interview or to make inquiries, you need to contact the propaganda department of the Taojiang county [ruling Chinese Communist] party committee," she said.

"We can't accept any kind of inquiry or interview request from here for the time being," she said. "This is on orders from higher up."

Larger cover-up feared

Repeated calls to the Taojiang county government propaganda department and the Hunan provincial CDC rang unanswered during office hours on Friday.

A local resident surnamed Zhao said the government is in the process of trying to cover up a TB epidemic of much larger proportions in Hunan, however.

"Tuberculosis spreads like wildfire, so the moment there is an official announcement, that's going to make the local officials look bad," Zhao said. "So they will definitely want to keep it under wraps."

"Because if they get sanctioned, it won't just be the school principal, but all the officials in charge in that region, including the health officials, will be seen as responsible," he said.

The government said it would cover all medical expenses beyond those reimbursed by health insurance programs, for all infected students, the China Daily reported.

It said the county government would also provide follow-up treatment for infected students and watch closely those who had close contact with them to prevent new cases.

China reports some 900,000 confirmed, new cases of tuberculosis every year, the third-highest infection rate in the world.

A doctor surnamed Xue who works at a hospital in Hunan said that how infectious a person is can only be determined by tests when the disease is confirmed.

"People who have the capacity to infect others should be isolated ... Someone in the early stages of the disease can infect up to 25 people," Xue said.

Chen Bingzhong, a former director of the China Institute of Health Education, said the outbreak suggests that students at the school were in relatively poor health to start with.

"The worrying thing right now is that it is currently very infectious, and children with a weaker constitution could catch it," Chen said.

"If ... students at this school caught it, it suggests they aren't very robust, because it has a much higher incidence among the poor."

Reported by Wong Siu-san, Hai Nan and Sing Man for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Shi Shan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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