China: The Outbreak of Bird Flu 2013

30 Apr, 2013    ·   3903

Namrata Hasija discusses the reactions and responses to the outbreak of bird flu in China

Namrata Hasija
Namrata Hasija
Senior Research Officer

After being the epicentre of SARS (2003) which killed hundreds of people worldwide, China has been hit yet again by a deadly bird flu virus; H7N9. So far the virus has mainly affected eastern China, with 20 dead and 98 infections. The virus has further spread to the northern and central part of the country including one in Beijing and three in central Henan Province -- have tested positive for the H7N9 virus. The count however, is increasing with each passing day.

What has been the government’s response to control the situation? Are the steps enough or is the Chinese government making the same mistakes as it did during the spread of SARS? How is the Chinese media reporting the outbreak and also how are Chinese Internet users reacting to it?

The H7N9 strain is a form of avian flu not previously found in humans. The birds affected by the virus appear to be healthy and show no signs of sickness making it difficult to track down the source of the virus. More than 40 per cent of the H7N9 cases involve victims that have not handled poultry, according to Chinese state media. However, authorities at the same time have said there has been no confirmed person-to-person transmission of the flu. The government is undertaking increased disease surveillance and Beijing, along with major eastern Chinese cities have closed live poultry markets in order to limit the spread of the virus. 

The state media has been reporting freely about the spread of H7N9 in comparison to SARS when the media was not allowed to report about rapidly spreading epidemic. The media is also questioning the delay in announcing the breakout as the first reported case occurred in February whereas the government declared it to have been on 31 March 2013. The Beijing News has asked people not to panic but also urged the authorities to be more ‘timely and transparent’ in dealing with the outbreak. The Xinhua News agency reported the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) statement not ruling out the case of dead pigs and ducks in two rivers of China as be a reason for this virus. The news agency also reported that though the Chinese government has learned a lot form the SARS outbreak, its approach is still immature. Meanwhile, the media in Hong Kong and Taipei has severely criticised the Chinese government for being passive, not taking enough measures and also of being a repeat offender. The officials and experts are assuring the public through China Central Television that it is not an epidemic on the scale of SARS. International health experts have broadly praised China's response. The government has said that it takes time for scientists to identify the virus and that such a finding had to be put through several layers of verification before being announced.

Internet users have been discussing the flu on micro-blogs, Weibo and other Internet sites. Authorities have to fight the online rumour mill that is alive on the blogosphere. Indeed, the authorities have detained 10 people from five different provinces for spreading false rumours about the spread of the disease in their provinces. On the other hand, most Internet users are playing a constructive role in this regard, by questioning whether the dead pigs and ducks found earlier in two major rivers were responsible for the spread of the bird flu. This forced Chinese agricultural officials to publicly state that they tested pig carcass samples and did not find any bird viruses. One such blogger, Li Tiantian, founder of Dingxiangyuan, an online medical network, is using his micro-blog to track the government's response to the new bird flu.

There is a stark difference in the approach of the government when SARS hit the country a decade ago, an epidemic which killed dozens in the south and spread outside the country. Though the government is still being questioned on its handling and reporting of the flu, the freedom given to the media to report openly and the early involvement of the WHO members show that the approach of the government is different than before. The members of the WHO have given reports that the early acceptance of their team in monitoring the crises shows an improvement in the government’s approach.

A statement from WHO’s representative in China that they are satisfied and pleased with the level of information shared by the Chinese authorities would help in cementing its reputation internationally. The contrast shows a new, though still evolving, openness in China that was learned from the SARS debacle, which devastated the government's credibility at home and abroad. It shows that Chinese government realises that international credibility is important along with its economic and military growth. It also reflects the demands of a more prosperous and educated citizenry for information and its use of social media to get it.