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Red Flags in China’s Disease Control

Author: Yanzhong Huang, Senior Fellow for Global Health
February 18, 2014
East Asia Forum

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The H7N9 bird flu is back in China. Since last October, more than 165 new human H7N9 cases have been reported, compared with 136 last spring. At least 115 cases(with 25 fatalities) have been confirmed this year. While the mortality rate of H7N9 is not as high as that of H5N1, the total number of H7N9 cases identified in the past month equals the number of H5N1 cases reported in 2006 (the most active calendar year for H5N1).

In contrast to the systematic cover-up and inaction during the initial stage of the 2002–03 SARS outbreak, the Chinese government has handled the outbreak in a more transparent and decisive manner. It updates bird flu data on a regular basis. Live poultry trading was halted in many cities of Eastern China. Central health authorities have dispatched expert teams to affected provinces to supervise local hospitals in diagnosing and treating H7N9 patients. Most confirmed human cases of H7N9 have been isolated. In so doing, China has benefited from an enhanced disease surveillance and reporting system and improved surge response capacity.

Does that mean China has successfully bridged the normative gap with the international society in disease prevention and control? A closer look at China's response to the H7N9 outbreak raises alarming questions on its ability to effectively manage a public health emergency of international concern.


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