Is China Covering Up an Outbreak of the Bird Flu?

The total reported impact of this still very mysterious strain has grown to eight deaths and 24 infected people, but the bird flu might just be a lot worse than China is letting on — and it wouldn't be the first time the country's health officials have "covered up" a major disease threat.

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One more person in China died from the H7N9 strain of bird flu on Tuesday, bringing the total reported impact of this still very mysterious strain to eight deaths and 24 infected people. That's scary enough on its own, but, here's the thing: This bird flu outbreak might just be a lot worse than China is letting on—and it wouldn't be the first time the country's health officials have "covered up" a major disease threat. "The 83-year-old victim, from the eastern province of Jiangsu, was admitted to hospital with a fever on March 20 and confirmed as having H7N9 on April 2," reports Reuters, gleaning information from China's state-run Xinhua newspaper. The first spate of human occurrences of H7N9 was first announced by China around April 2—but that timeframe is actually around two to three months after the first two bird flu victims got sick... meaning that H7N9 has actually been around since February.

"The bird flu outbreak has caused global concern and some Chinese internet users and newspapers have questioned why it took so long for the government to announce the new cases, especially as two of the victims fell ill in February," according to Reuters. In those two cases, according to the AP, one man fell ill on February 19—then died on February 27—while another fell ill on February 27 and died on March 4.... but Chinese authorities didn't announce the deaths and cause until weeks later, on March 31.

That was enough to put a scare into Bloomberg's Adam Minter, who sees a parallel to the SARS outbreak. He wrote last week:

For those (like me) who lived in China during the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic, today’s events feel eerily familiar. Back then, Chinese officials covered up SARS for months, suppressing data, the location of outbreaks and access to patients by the World Health Organization, all in the hope of preventing public panic and, many presumed, preserving promising public-health careers.

Here's one more log to throw on the conspiracy flame: There's some shady behavior from Chinese hospital officials. The father-in-law of Wu Liangliang, the second victim of the H7N9 strain, has said hospital officials wouldn't tell him that his son-in-law died of H7N9. "They said we should go ask the television station to check out whether the death was due to bird flu," Wu Demao is quoted as saying in the South China Morning Post, adding that he was told that his son-in-law had pneumonia and was not put in quarantine. "It was one of our relatives who told us that the local television had reported that my son-in-law died of a new strain of bird flu," Wu said.

The World Health Organization has maintained that based from what they've seen, there is no evidence of human to human contact—and that they've been pleased with China's response. "It is really a severe illness but cases are being well handled and put into intensive care units. There doesn't seem to be any indication of infections in hospital so far," WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl told reporters in Geneva on Friday.

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