HONG KONG—As more deaths are reported in connection with a fatal disease being spread by tick bites in China, people are questioning why authorities did not warn the public about the health risk earlier.
In central Henan province’s Shangcheng county, family members of patients who have died from human granulocytic anaplasmosis (HGA) said they don’t know the exact local death toll, as county officials have refused to publicize suspected cases or a list of fatalities.
A Shangcheng resident said he only learned the news about the spread of the disease from the Internet and media, while a recently issued statement by county officials said patients had been getting infected for more than a year.
“I just heard the story recently on the Web and through the media. Our county residents have never been told about this before.”
He said the county government might have taken measures to curb the spread of the disease “but we residents didn’t get the impression that HGA was as lethal as SARS.”
In 2003, an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, sickened thousands in China and left more than 300 dead.
A staff member who answered the phone at the No. 154 Hospital in Shangcheng would not reveal how many people had died, but confirmed that “there are many phone calls these days, and many were made from other provinces, such as Hebei and Anhui, to consult about HGA.”
The No. 154 Hospital has been assigned a special treatment hospital for HGA.
In a Sept. 13 call to a clinic in Shangcheng county’s Yuji town, an employee said the treatment center had “begun to vaccinate local residents against the disease free of charge since [today].”
Spread through ticks
HGA, which infiltrates cells and kills blood platelets and leucocytes, has proven contagious through transmission by infected ticks. Symptoms include fever, bloody cough, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Health authorities in Henan province issued a statement Monday, saying that from May 2007 to Sept. 8 of this year, 557 tick-bite cases had led to 18 deaths.
Meanwhile, in the eastern province of Shandong, 182 infected cases were reported through Sept. 9 with 13 deaths.
The virus has been discovered in a total of 12 provinces and has killed 33 patients across the country, according to provincial health authorities.
An employee with the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Monday confirmed the death toll but insisted that HGA has not spread throughout China.
“It has happened in a few areas, but not that many. All areas reporting epidemics have set up monitoring stations, although stations have not been established in places that have not reported infections,” he said.
“The death toll has been published on our website, and that is all [the information] we have,” the employee added.
Media reports in China said that a township official in Shangcheng claimed the government had not released detailed information about the latest infections because they feared a public panic would disturb social stability.
But the employee with the CDC would not confirm the reports.
“A cover-up is impossible. Once an epidemic is discovered we will certainly publicize it,” he said.
“However, there are a lot of viruses that have not been thoroughly studied throughout the world, and we cannot tell the public about these.”
During the SARS outbreak several years ago, China drew sharp criticism for suppressing information about the disease. The government then changed its policy, becoming more open in sharing information.
Original reporting by Fang Yuan for RFA’s Mandarin service. Translated by Ping Chen. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.