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WHO, do you believe?
By Wong Kwok Wah

HONG KONG - The World Health Organization (WHO) is concerned about the sudden drop of new severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) cases reported from mainland China, doubting whether the epidemic's situation is as good as what the figures show.

"The Chinese authorities are obviously adopting a definition different from ours," Peter Cordingley, spokesman of WHO West Pacific Regional Office (WPRO), said on Thursday in an interview with Asia Times Online.

"There is a wide spectrum of SARS patients. While some show all kinds of symptoms including fever, coughing, etc, some may show no symptoms at all. We are afraid the Chinese authorities might not count those showing minimal symptoms," Cordingley said.

The spokesman admitted that WHO is also having a definition issue with Hong Kong, which adopted a new formula different from that of the United Nations health agency a few weeks ago and afterward has been reporting single-digit growth of new cases.

"On the issue of Hong Kong, at least we know what they are doing. Our team there is working closely with the local authorities. But in China, there is a lot we do not know," said Cordingley.

All the information regarding China that the WHO is receiving comes from only two sources: findings by WHO missions and reports provided by the Chinese authorities. All WHO missions thus far have been escorted by Chinese officials. As Cordingley stated quite simply: "We have no external information.

"We will be very happy if the latest [low] figures from China are genuine, which means the situation is being contained. But I'm afraid that may not be the case at present," he added.

The WHO came short of accusing the Chinese authorities of concealing cases or lying. "China is a vast country and there are areas far away from the emperor," Cordingley tried to explain. He nevertheless admitted communications between WHO and the Chinese authorities are still not as efficient as they had expected, this despite China having adopted a policy of transparency since April 20, when both the country's health minister and Beijing's mayor were sacked for having covered up the SARS situation.

The number of new SARS cases reported from Beijing has been dropping drastically over the past three weeks, from triple-digit to single-digit figures. China's official explanation was that the epidemic situation had been contained.

Some light could be shed from what an Asia Times Online correspondent learned from a local Beijing reporter. When the reporter asked an official of the Haidian district of Beijing municipal why the SARS situation is more severe in Haidian among all Beijing districts, the official said, "Good hospitals are in Haidian. Many patients came to our hospitals on their own, thus pushing up our reported figure."

The official then disclosed that Haidian district had removed patients with residential addresses outside the district from their statistics and thus have the case figure reduced. The question there remains: Will the local authority of the patient's address report that particular case as having occurred in its governed vicinity?

(Copyright 2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
May 23, 2003

Xiaotangshan: Beijing's 'SARS city' (May 15, '03)

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(May 13, '03)

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(May 8, '03)


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