Has China Learned From SARS?

In a new report on the H7N9 flu outbreak, Chinese health officials warned on Wednesday that the death toll is likely to rise. From Karen Kaplan of the Los Angeles Times:

In a report on the outbreak that began in China in February, doctors and researchers from from several public health agencies said they suspected that most of the 82 people with confirmed cases of bird flu contracted the H7N9 virus from healthy-looking animals.

“To date, the mortality rate is 21%, but since many of [sic] patients with confirmed H7N9 virus infection remain critically ill, we suspect that the mortality may increase,” they wrote in their study, published online Wednesday by the New England Journal of Medicine. “Since this H7N9 virus appears to have emerged recently to infect humans, population immunity is expected to be low, and persons of any age may be susceptible to infection.”

The report paints a fuller picture of the outbreak, which hascaused Chinese people to become so panicked that one motorist felt the need to flag down police after a bird dropping landed on her car.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Laurie Garrett, who covered the SARS epidemic in Hong Kong and mainland China ten years ago, traces the origin and uncertain path of the H7N9 virus and asks whether the Chinese government has changed its approach to its latest health scare:

People’s Liberation Army Col. Dai Xu insisted via Weibo and on China’s CCTV that the fearfulness felt by the Chinese in the face of H7N9 flu is part of an elaborate American conspiracy — one first executed in the creation of SARS: “The national leadership should not pay too much attention to it,” he wrote. “Or else, it’ll be like in 2003 with SARS! At that time, America was fighting in Iraq and feared that China would take advantage of the opportunity to take other actions. This is why they used bio-psychological weapons against China. All of China fell into turmoil and that was exactly what the US wanted. Now, the US is using the same old trick. China should have learned its lesson and should calmly deal with the problem. Only a few will die, but that’s not even a one-thousandth of those who die in car crashes in China.”

Famous for his nationalistic comments, Xu reportedly gained 30,000 Weibo followers in the 24 hours following this comment. He also drew criticism, to which Xu responded that his detractors were working with “American devils,” adding, “It is common knowledge that a group of people in China have been injected with mental toxin by the U.S. I will not retreat even half a step.”

Just as the virus stands at the fork of a bifurcated road, so does the Chinese Communist Party. Though hardliners within the party may share Xu’s extremist views, the leadership this week took a remarkable step down a different, enlightened path, sending H7N9 test kits and viral samples to Taiwan. If China hopes to avoid the shame it experienced after covering up the SARS epidemic a decade ago, the government and the party will take the high road — that’s the one that shares samples with Taiwan and timely information transparently with the entire world.

Chinese government has acted with more transparency than it did ten years ago, claims The Washington Post’s Max Fisher, but the disease is spreading. He details “three very bad signs” about the new avian flu:

1. It’s very deadly, with 18 percent mortality so far. For comparison, tuberculosis has a mortality rate of about 4 or 5 percent in China. Still, the avian flu virus that had its first outbreaks in China in 2006, known as H5N1, has a mortality rate of 60 percent and has killed hundreds of people on multiple continents. It’s way too early to tell H7N9′s mortality rate, given that many infected patients have not yet fully recovered, but it’s so far killed about 18 percent of patients.

2. “This is definitely one of the most lethal influenza viruses that we have seen so far.” That’s according to Keiji Fukuda, the World Health Organization’s assistant director general for health, security and the environment, who added, “This is an unusually dangerous virus for humans.” Fukuda said the WHO is still struggling to understand the disease, but he certainly seems to be sounding the alarm.

3. More easily transmitted than the 2006 avian flu outbreak. That’s also according to the WHO’s Fukuda, who says this new strain is more easily contracted than the H5N1 virus.


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