A new strain of avian influenza, otherwise known as bird flu, has broken out in mainland China, and concerns about an epidemic are beginning to rise. The first cases were reported in the Zhejiang province in mid-February, and, according to the World Health Organization, the disease has infected over 100 people and killed 22.
On Wednesday, officials in Taiwan confirmed that a 53-year-old Taiwanese man has tested positive for the H7N9 virus three days after returning from business-related travel in Suzhou, China. It is the first reported case of infection outside of the mainland.
Questions are being raised regarding the Chinese government’s disclosure of cases and developing news. An article in The New York Times published earlier this month points out the unsettling delay in China’s reportage of the outbreak. The first cases of H7N9 found on February 19 were reported to the Chinese and international public more than a month later, on March 31. Chinese officials have not explained the delay.
The Chinese government is notorious for its Internet censorship, and authorities have been flexing their muscles throughout this whole ordeal. China’s main social networking website, Sina Weibo, equivalent to Twitter and Facebook, has been flooded with posts regarding the flu outbreak. But photographs of dead chickens in city streets and a medical report of an infected Chinese chicken butcher were promptly deleted by the government. Disturbingly, this information on social media outlets was the first news of the outbreak to reach many Chinese nationals.
Instead of reducing public panic, the censorship of online posts has done the opposite. What does the government have to hide? If it is an effort to save face, then they are putting the lives of their citizens in danger for a cause that is already lost.
According to the WHO, however, the Chinese government has been especially vigilant and cooperative during the progression of the H7N9 virus, at least in comparison to past outbreaks. Officials closed the Shanghai poultry market on April 6 and ordered the slaughter of over 20,000 birds that the same day, acts which have been markedly effective in curbing the rise of number of cases.
However, if the death toll continues to rise as predicted, even with the precautionary measures being taken, medical researchers are likely to find that the virus is transmitted through human contact, a characteristic of pandemic viruses like SARS and H1N1. China’s lack of transparency is worrisome in this aspect — so far, Chinese officials have only disclosed two cases of infected family clusters. Although WHO reports that Chinese officials are being proactive, the number of infections by human transmission, and infections in total, may be higher than China is letting on.
News of online censorship and delays in development reports from China recall the past cover-ups of the Chinese government in regards to epidemics. The 2003 SARS outbreak was kept quiet for months, and information about various cases and severity was limited to outside organizations like the WHO. This time around, some things seem to be different, while others are much the same. We can only hope that China continues to cooperate, and that this will lead to a quicker containment of the virus.
Nina Golshan is a staff columnist. Email her at [email protected]