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Consumer Reports


Man who blew lid off SARS kept under wraps

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | (KRT) BEIJING The Chinese government has pledged to stop keeping secrets in its fight against SARS, but on one symbolic issue it continues to hide the truth: how a maverick doctor exposed the official cover-up of Beijing's epidemic.

When authorities were asked at a news conference about recognizing the contribution of the semiretired Beijing military surgeon who revealed to the world in April that scores of SARS cases were being concealed, a Health Ministry official evaded the question. Pinned down, he said he had no information to share about Dr. Jiang Yanyong.

"We have not acquired any information about him in a direct way," Han Demin, deputy chief of the Beijing Health Bureau, said last week. "I think after getting some direct information, I can further answer your question at (next week's) press conference."

Jiang has been ignored by the government, but in the foreign press and in one article in a Chinese magazine, Jiang gets much of the credit for blowing the whistle on the cover-up that led to the firing of the health minister and mayor. His tip also led to the World Health Organization's aggressive efforts to investigate what was happening in Beijing's hospitals, and, ultimately, to the promises made by the highest levels of the Chinese government to deal openly with the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic.

The Chinese magazine Caijing declares in its current issue: "We have to say it isn't only Dr. Jiang who made reports on the SARS epidemic in China more transparent, but we should admit he was one of the key people to accelerate the speed."

It concludes: "He saved many people's lives."

But most people in China don't read Caijing, a business biweekly with a small circulation and a reputation for daring reporting. And they don't have access to newspapers like the Singapore Straits Times, which said in a recent column: "In other countries, Dr. Jiang would probably have been lauded as a national hero."

Instead, Jiang, 72, remains an unknown figure in China, neither praised nor punished, but he has been asked by the government not to talk to the press without permission, though he spoke briefly with a reporter recently.

Jiang said he didn't know why the government pretended he didn't exist.

"It's hard for me to analyze the attitude of the government," he said. "I've heard they still have these press conferences once a week, so if you want to know the attitude of the government, you should ask them directly."

Without wide dissemination of Jiang's story in China, the government has been able to shift gears to wage a public health war against SARS without needing to acknowledge fully the extent of the cover-up and the other bureaucratic failings that have led Beijing to become the world's most SARS-infected city.

The government still insists that SARS struck suddenly, giving it no time to prepare, a stance that has been rebutted by the WHO. Its officials maintain that Beijing had adequate time to prepare for SARS, which was publicly identified in early February as an epidemic in southern China. But the government failed to mobilize for more than a month after the first case was identified in the city March 5.

Also, as SARS was spreading from China to the rest of the world and Western journalists were reporting widely on the subject, China's state-run media kept silent.

It was only after Jiang wrote an outraged e-mail on April 4 - which was sent to Chinese television, ignored and then passed to the Western - news media - that the world got confirmation of a cover-up. At the time, Beijing said it had 12 SARS patients, when the real figure at several military hospitals, Jiang said, was at least 100.

Within 10 days of Jiang's letter being publicized, China's government began to set the record straight by firing two senior officials and admitting it had 346 confirmed SARS cases in Beijing and 402 more suspected cases. Today, Beijing has more than 2,300 confirmed cases.

Despite that attempt to come clean, China was saddled with a credibility crisis - the perception that it puts issues of political stability ahead of public health concerns - that it still has not overcome.

Keiji Fukuda, a WHO investigator in China, said at a news conference last week that the government was showing an increased commitment to working with the international community and that he was "fairly confident" there was no longer a cover-up. But numerous lapses in the reporting of cases remain, making it impossible to construct a precise overview of the epidemic's trajectory in Beijing.

According to the WHO, about half of all new probable SARS cases in Beijing do not have any record of previous contact with a SARS patient. That could reflect poor record-keeping, or it could suggest the virus is being transmitted in ways and through people investigators do not know about.

Even though the number of new confirmed cases reported has declined noticeably in the past week, the WHO is "very wary" of declaring that the SARS epidemic is declining, Bob Dietz, a WHO spokesman, said Friday.

Almost everything that is said about the SARS epidemic in China remains cloaked in mystery, raising the possibility that officials are hiding the truth to avoid bad news.

A law that went into effect last week that attempts to strengthen the government's ability to respond to a public health emergency seemed directed at addressing the possibility that crises will be covered up. The regulation says any person or organization has the right to report emergencies to the government, as well as the right to accuse the government of not performing its duties, according to the China Daily.

"Governments and officials will be held responsible for hiding or delaying emergency information or giving false information," the newspaper said.

Yet the man who personifies the intention of the new law, Jiang Yanyong, has been ignored.

When Jiang heard then-Health Minister Zhang Wenkang declare on television April 3 that there were only 12 cases of SARS in the capital, he said he was stunned.

"All the doctors and nurses who saw yesterday's news were furious," Jiang wrote in his e-mail.

The health minister, he said, is "abandoning even his most basic standards of integrity as a doctor."

Jiang said in his letter that the government first covered up the outbreak "in order to ensure stability" in March during the National People's Congress, at which Hu Jintao succeeded Jiang Zemin as president.

The doctor's disclosure, picked up by the international media, led WHO investigators to extend their trip to Beijing and investigate the situation in hospitals, which put pressure on the government.

Jiang was imprisoned for two years and then exiled to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution because his father was a banker and he had relatives in Taiwan. He came back to work at the People's Liberation Army Hospital No. 301 in 1972.

When the military crushed the 1989 student movement in Tiananmen Square, Jiang treated dozens of people.

"As a doctor who cares about people's lives and health," he wrote in his e-mail, "I have a responsibility to aid international and local efforts to prevent the spread of the disease."

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