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Bird Flu Fears: Should We Trust Beijing This Time?

Author: Yanzhong Huang, Senior Fellow for Global Health
April 3, 2013
Asia Society

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I am also encouraged by the government's relative transparency when it comes to recent reports of H7N9 infections. By contrast, as you point out, the Chinese government response to the initial SARS outbreak was characterized by cover-up and inaction. As a result of the news blackout about the disease in the government-controlled press, SARS carriers traveled across the country without realizing that they were shedding a dangerous virus. According to Dr. Margaret Chan, then Director of Health in Hong Kong, China repeatedly declined her requests for information on the grounds of official secrecy. Consequently, SARS also developed into a full-blown epidemic in Hong Kong, from where it spread further to other parts of the world.

In the post-SARS era, the government has taken steps to promote the image of a more open and transparent government in its dealing with public health emergencies. As part of the government's transparency campaign, information on the current veterinary epidemics, including avian influenza, was no longer classified as state secrets. According to the Regulation on Infectious Disease Information Reporting Management (2006), cases of SARS and Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) should be reported within two hours of a confirmed incident. The Emergency Response Law further requires governments at or above county level to "issue public-related forecast information and analytical assessment results about emergency events." This is reaffirmed by the Regulation on Government's Information Disclosure (2008), which asks the disclosure of "contingency plan, surveillance information and responses to public emergencies." Thanks to the revved-up state commitment, China now boasts the largest (if not the most efficient) infectious disease surveillance and reporting system in the world.

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