Media Blackout as Pig-Borne Disease Spreads

Aug. 2, 2003. A Sichuan farmer prepares pigs for vaccination. Photo: AFP

HONG KONG—Authorities in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan have issued a media blackout order surrounding a fatal pig-borne disease, which has now spread to 10 cities, with at least 200 infections and dozens of fatalities.

"The death toll of the pig-borne endemic...had reached 37 as of 12:00 a.m. Tuesday, with one new death reported, according to the Chinese Ministry of Health," China's official Xinhua news agency reported.

Xinhua's is currently the only version of events available to both Chinese and overseas reporters alike, according to Hong Kong reporters in Sichuan.

"A circular has been issued by the Sichuan Provincial Propaganda Department...which forbids local press from sending reporters to the infected areas or hospitals," the Chinese-language Ming Pao reported.

Reporters banned from area

"No amendments of Xinhua reports are allowed, including the headline," the paper said, citing local Chinese reporters.

It said reports that the mystery disease, which is said by Chinese health authorities to be caused by a bacteria called swine streptococcus suis II, had reached the provincial capital of Chengdu had been relegated to the inside pages of the top provincial newspapers.

According to Xinhua, 205 cases of the disease were reported as of Tuesday, with 159 confirmed and 46 suspected. Eighteen people had been discharged from hospital and 29 others were in critical condition, the agency said.

An official with the Western Pacific arm of the World Health Organization (WHO) called the outbreak "very unusual".

"Well at this time we are not really part of the team that is in Sichuan...but it is of course of concern to China and to us that there are so many cases of this outbreak. This is a highly unusual outbreak," the WHO spokesman said.

Former senior doctor at the Provincial People's Hospital in the northern province of Shaanxi, Jin Fushen, told RFA's Mandarin service that he couldn't say for sure why the local authorities had banned reporters from covering the outbreak.

Doctors slam lack of transparency

"I think there are two aspects to this. One is that they don't want the journalists to spread the disease. The other is that they don't want the journalists to report on the reason that the disease is spreading," Jin told RFA reporter Yang Jiadai.

"But it's not really right not to let them go into the affected area...They're not likely to exaggerate the threat. Journalists have a responsibility. It's their job to report objectively and truthfully what is happening," he said.

He said local journalists could play a helpful role for the government in helping to control this outbreak, which needed to be contained within a 10-kilometer radius of all known infections.

"In China farming families revolve around their pigs and cattle. There are many families who raise pigs. So if the 10-kilometer rule is not followed, more infections are going to result."

And a former senior doctor at the Xuanwu District People's Hospital in Beijing, Yu Jianmei, said that during an outbreak of disease, the Chinese health authorities should understand very well the need not to keep the public in the dark.

But in the heat of the moment, local officials were apt to see social stability as more important than anything, she said.

Stability the chief concern

"There are guidelines for outbreaks of disease, what to do, how to react, whether it's from a point of view of epidemiology, or from a public health perspective. The trouble with mainland China is that these guidelines will not be followed."

"So they don't act in a scientific manner, which causes a lot of ill-feeling."

Original reporting in Mandarin by Yan Ming and Yang Jiadai. RFA Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Produced for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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