H7N9 Bird Flu – China’s shadowy past of health scandals put to test

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The grim reaper of modern pandemic diseases makes a macabre reappearance, this time in the form of the newly discovered strain of bird flu, H7N9, which has now claimed 14 lives and seen 71 confirmed cases of infection throughout China. Two crucial questions are posed: firstly, is this new strain of avian flu a cause for panic? And secondly, how does this reflect upon China’s already disreputable history of health standards? Until recently, this variation of bird flu was previously not believed to be dangerous to humans.

Derived from wild birds and sourced in poultry markets, the virus exhibits in humans symptoms such as pneumonia, respiratory difficulties, and in some extreme cases, sudden and quick death. It outlived H5N1 as a strand of bird flu that not only transmits from bird-to-bird but also from bird-to-human. Whilst the possibility of it being carried from human-to-human cannot be ruled out, there is little indication at present of its contagiousness between people: the World Health Organization (WHO) and Chinese authorities have interviewed dozens in close contact with victims and none have been struck ill, and the known victims affected thus far all appear to be isolated cases concentrated predominantly in Eastern China. Suffice to say, the Chinese government’s response to the outbreak is as much brought into scrutiny as the bird flu virus itself.

With its dubious past of cover-ups relating to the 2002 epidemic of Sever Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which, according to WHO statistics, claimed 7083 out of 8723 deaths in China and Hong Kong alone, as well as the Melamine milk scandal in 2008, the government is acutely aware of the need to make amends to its weary and suspicious general public. This explains why the lid over information censorship is slowly lifting, thanks to the backlash of avid criticisms levelled by Chinese internet users and health agencies regarding cover-ups in the first cases of this flu in February 2013. Indeed, there is increasing media transparency regarding the H7N9 developments, reflected in the global response to the Chinese government’s concerted efforts to publicize the flu’s developments and contain the virus in poultry markets, which is one of praise.

Promising signs can be seen in the growing collaboration between the WHO and China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission and Centre for Disease Control and Prevention; as well as the Sino-Global scientific community, which is regularly updating its database of gene sequence data from virus samples in the website of the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data (GISAID). In light of this, there is perhaps still hope for the Chinese public and international community in this ongoing censorship war between China and her people, as well as the grave battle between virus and mankind.

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