China Detains 10 Over Bird Flu Tweets

china-birld-flu-masks-april-2013.jpg People wear masks to protect themselves from bird flu on the subway system in Shanghai, April 9, 2013.

Authorities in China have detained at least 10 people for online posts about the new H7N9 strain of avian influenza, which has now killed nine people.

Netizens in Shaanxi, Guizhou, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui and Fujian were detained for posting "fake information" online regarding alleged new cases of the virus where they lived, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

Authorities in the eastern province of Anhui handed a seven-day administrative sentence to one man for "fabricating" microblog posts about new infections, the agency said.

Meanwhile, police in Xi'an were investigating a second man's tweets "to prevent untrue information from causing public panic," it said.

Yuan Yulai, a lawyer based in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang, said the government's reaction could backfire, however.

"The more they detain people, the more of a sense of terror they will create," Yuan said in an interview on Wednesday. "What's going to happen if they just send out a tweet? It's not like it's a bomb, but that's how they're reacting."

"If they did nothing, then nothing would happen, but if you go round arresting people all over the place, then it looks like you're trying to cover something up," he said.

"That would be a natural reaction for people to have," Yuan added. "If there is already a lack of public trust in a government in a certain place, and then they do this, it could lead to panic."

"So perhaps it's not so good for so-called stability after all," he said.

Nine dead

The arrests came as the death toll from the H7N9 bird flu virus rose to nine, out of a total of 33 confirmed cases so far, as the authorities scramble to produce a vaccine. State media also announced Wednesday that a four-year-old boy from Shanghai was the first patient to completely recover from the flu and be discharged from hospital.

Xinhua said the source of the virus had been narrowed down to migratory birds and domestic chickens.

As the number of cases continued to rise in eastern China, authorities in Beijing said they were bracing for a possible outbreak in the capital after four people were admitted to hospital with unspecified respiratory disease.

"The hospitals have already done large numbers of tests [for H7N9]," said an official who answered the phone at the Beijing Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

"They have said there haven't been any cases of bird flu, but if there are, we will immediately make a public announcement," she said, but declined to comment on individual cases.

While the Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO) has praised Beijing's handling of the outbreak, many Chinese people fear they aren't being told the full story by officials.

The government initially tried to conceal an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which emerged in China in 2002 and killed about one in 10 of the 8,000 people it infected worldwide.

Chinese Internet users have also questioned why the government waited weeks to announce cases of the bird flu strain, but health officials said it took time to identify the virus, which was previously unknown in humans.

'Impossible to verify'

A resident of Anhui's Bengbu city surnamed Zhang said many people were very nervous, because the authorities hadn't yet pinned down the source of the infection.

He said much of what was posted online was dubious, but often in good faith.

"Most of the information you get on the Internet is impossible to verify," Zhang said. "A lot of it is false, but everyone is just a bit more careful."

Authorities in eastern China have culled hundreds of thousands of birds and shut down live poultry markets, while local residents have rushed to buy up face masks and herbal anti-viral products.

Bird flu is very common among poultry flocks in southern China, and is sometimes transmitted to people and pigs nearby.

However, person-to-person transmission, which could spark a pandemic, is rare, and this still appears to be the case with the H7N9 virus.

The WHO has said there has been no sign of a sustained spread of the virus from person to person in China so far, but that it is still possible that limited transmission has occurred between people.

Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin service, and by Fung Yat-yiu for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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