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    Greater China
     Jun 8, 2006
China plagued by bird-flu coverups
By Xu Xiang

YANGZHOU, CHUZHOU and CHENZHOU, China - Having learned a bitter lesson from covering up the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic in early 2003, the central government of China now is said to be taking a more positive, responsible attitude in dealing with avian influenza, or bird flu. But that hasn't filtered down to the provinces.

As the market economy has taken root in China, the country has become increasingly decentralized. Because of this, Beijing's tough orders regarding the prevention of a bird-flu outbreak may not necessarily be carried out at all levels. Overwhelmingly concerned with economic growth, some local officials still tend to cover up any outbreak of bird flu, defying Beijing's order to report new cases immediately.

Beijing has punished some local officials for their incompetence in

dealing with bird-flu outbreaks. For instance, in May it was announced that five officials in Dazhu county in Sichuan province had been sacked for of dereliction of duty because they did not report and contain the local outbreak in time.

But during an investigative reporting trip to three locations in China, Asia Times Online found that in rural areas, local officials and residents really don't like any action that might expose a possible bird-flu outbreak, fearing the damage it would do to the economy. Because of this, they hate individuals who dare to inform authorities of any bird-flu case.

Qiao Songju, a resident of Gaoyou county in Jiangsu province, attained a brief heroic reputation for informing authorities of a massive bird-flu outbreak in Anhui province last October. Tipped by Qiao, the Ministry of Agriculture confirmed the outbreak of the deadly H5N1 bird flu among geese and chicken in Liangying village of Chuzhou city.

Qiao gained overnight fame as the first informer of a bird-flu outbreak. But his joy did not last long. One month later, Gaoyou police paid a midnight visit to Qiao's home and "invited" him to the station for a "chat", which turned out to be the prologue to detention. The next day, Qiao was arrested on suspected fraud and blackmail activities. His arrest happened two days after he attempted to report another bird flu outbreak - this time in his own hometown. His arrest made headlines.

On condition of anonymity, a Gaoyou police officer told ATol that they had to arrest Qiao because he was suspected of being involved in illegal production of vaccines for chicken. But observers pointed out that the timing of Qiao's arrest suggested it was hardly coincidental. Many believed he was being framed. The Guangzhou-based and often outspoken South Metropolis News pointed out Qiao's arrest took place when he was preparing to expose the bird flu outbreak in Gaoyou.

Qiao was tried on April 21 and on April 26. The court has yet to hand down a verdict. In China, it is rare for such a case to be tried twice without a court ruling. Analysts said it was likely that the central government intervened, so the case now seems to be moving to Qiao's advantage.

"It is beyond comprehension why the onetime hero was arrested on fabricated charges at such a time," said Qiao's lawyer, Kong Weizhao, denying that his client was guilty of the charges.

When ATol interviewed Kong in April, the lawyer lamented that all officials who could help Qiao's defense had refused to give testimony. When the lawyer went all the way to the Ministry of Agriculture in Beijing, even those officials were reluctant to testify.
Ever since Qiao was detained, many domestic news media have tried to contact the Ministry of Agriculture on whether it would provide a crucial witness for the defense. However, the ministry declined any interview and would not comment on whether Qiao had served as an informant for the ministry.

Chen Linxiang, an official with Gaoyou's Agriculture and Forestry Bureau, made it explicit, "Qiao Songju is a sinner to all Gaoyou farmers."

Owing to wide coverage of Qiao, the poultry market in Gaoyou has slumped. "The price of eggs has dropped from 3 yuan [37 US cents] to 1 or 2 yuan per 500 grams, chicken prices are also down from 5 yuan to 2 yuan for half a kilo, even below the raising cost," Chen noted. "So no one wants to raise chickens now, even though chicks are free."

Now, the local government is considering various incentives, mainly allowances, to subsidize poultry farmers and revive the their business.

Near the Jiangsu provincial capital Nanjing, Gaoyou abounds in geese and ducks. Poultry and eggs provide almost the entire gross domestic product (GDP) to Gaoyou. For the locals, an outbreak of bird flu there could mean the end of the world.

The outbreak in Tianchang
More than half a year has passed since the bird-flu epidemic in Tianchang city, Anhui province, was exposed to the outside world. A recent visit by ATol found residents there still eager to see their hated local informer turned into a criminal defendant, while little attention has been paid to prevention of a possible return of the epidemic.

Ducklings and goslings roamed all over Liangying village, showing that no one was paying attention to the Animal Epidemic Prevention Law. Among other things, the law stipulates a six-month ban on breeding poultry after an outbreak, and the current ban only expired on May 24. "We started raising poultry after the Chinese New Year, and village leaders never stop us," a local farmer said.

The poultry population of Liangying village and the surrounding area is growing again, and some households even raise birds, dogs and lambs together, despite warnings to separate them to prevent cross-breeding of diseases between various kinds of livestock. "We're poor, and raising poultry is the only way to enrich our tables and honor guests," an elderly farmer said, herding a gaggle in the fields.

All these words and scenes reveal a complete and willful ignorance of basic precautions against a possible revival of bird flu, as well as a deadly apathetic attitude toward epidemic prevention that is shared by the local authorities and residents alike.

To the local farmers in Tianchang, Qiao was just a "bad guy". Because of his tip-off, the government decided to destroy all reared poultry in the neighborhood, but the state compensation did not suffice to cover the colossal loss. This seething resentment against Qiao even extends to his his fellows from Gaoyou. "Gaoyou guys dare not come here to trade anymore. They are afraid we will beat them up," grinned a local Tianchang farmer.

An unreported death in Chenzhou
The death of Li Juhua, a female farmer in Chenzhou, has not been reported by the Chinese media. Yet a lot of fanfare was extended to her son, six-year-old Junior Ouyang, who is to date the youngest person to catch bird flu in China, according to official records. Junior Ouyang has recovered and been discharged from hospital.

To Ouyang Xihua, now the widower, so many questions are unanswered. He is certain that his late wife and the boy showed the same symptoms, and that was why he wasted no time rushing the son to hospital in Changsha, Hunan's provincial capital, after his wife died. Yet he fails to understand why the diagnoses were so different.

He cannot understand either why, when the media of the whole country were enthusiastically reporting the progress of his little son, not a single word had been given to the son's ill-fated mother.
The bereaved family lives in rural Guiyang, a county under Chenzhou city. With his wife gone, widower Ouyang Xihua is now a single parent taking care of a pair of twins. 

Last December 21, the family had dinner to celebrate the winter solstice. They were not rich enough to kill a live bird and could afford only dead chickens dumped by owners, which the poor collect and preserve for festivals.

The wife, Li Juhua, soon felt sick and was taken to the county hospital on December 23. At that moment, a grisly thought occurred to Ouyang that his wife might have been infected with bird flu, as he had watched news of the epidemic on television. Yet none of the doctors heeded his fears. Li died the next day, to which the hospital only gave a single-sentence explanation citing some rare dermatological disease.

A few days later, the son developed the same symptoms as his deceased mother. At the county hospital, the diagnosis given was tuberculosis. Ouyang dared not take a chance with the county hospital again and took the little boy to a hospital in Chenzhou, where the medical staff were concerned and referred the child to Changsha. There his affliction was finally diagnosed as bird flu infection.

"It is all due to that damned plagued chicken!" moaned Ouyang.

It is odd that Li, with bird-flu-like symptoms, did not attract the attention of Guiyang county hospital, nor did she have the chance to receive the treatment that her son later got to survive.

Under current regulations, all local-level medical institutions must report immediately to the Ministry of Health any discovery of human infection of bird flu, and patients suspected of infection must be given virus tests and treatment accordingly.

In a sense, the mother gave up her life to save the child. Her quick demise fortified her husband's belief that the sickness was no small thing and should not be allowed to stay in the hands of irresponsible county medicals.

Doctors in the provincial capital eventually cured Junior Ouyang. But in the official announcement of his survival, not a single word was mentioned about the infection of his departed mother.

According to a notice published by the Ministry of Health, on discovering the infection, local medical authorities should waste no time in taking preventive measures, giving appropriate treatment and necessary observation to the patient and whoever was in close contact with that patient.

When Junior Ouyang was making a steady recovery, reporters from across the country waited outside his segregated ward. There was once even a real-time online videotaping of his medication. The child was said to be happy, despite the fact that he had already lost his mother.

On the child's discharge, the Ministry of Health issued a statement saying no one in close contact with Junior Ouyang had developed unusual conditions. Again, it skipped the crucial fact that Junior Ouyang and his mother had been living together before death broke them apart. Or did the ministry take the mother's demise as nothing unusual?

In answering questions from ATol, a spokesman of Guiyang county hospital said he did not have detailed information about Li's case and refused to comment on why the case was not reported to higher authorities or why it could not be diagnosed as bird flu when it was so obvious.

Throughout the three months the ATol correspondent roamed among infested provinces, a lot of coverups were detected. This case of covering up a human death closely related to avian flu was, however, the most repugnant.

Xu Xiang is a Chinese correspondent for the Chinese edition of Asia Times Online.

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing .)

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