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China 16 May 2007

China tries to cover up epidemic as World Health Assembly meets in Geneva

Reporters Without Borders today voiced indignation that national and Shandong provincial authorities in eastern China tried to censor news about an epidemic of hand-foot-mouth disease which has reportedly infected scores of children since the end of April 2007.

And the worldwide press freedom organisation urged the World Health Assembly currently meeting in Geneva to formally respond to “this unacceptable censorship of news” about the Chinese epidemic.

“One thought that the local and national authorities had learned their lesson from the results of imposing media censorship at the start of the SARS epidemic in 2002,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Evidently, bad habits die hard. Chinese officials prefer to silence the media rather than protect the people.”

Chinese officials finally acknowledged on 12 May that an infant had died and several dozen other children had been infected with the disease in Linyi, Shandong province since the end of April. The Shandong Health Bureau condemned “rumors” that 26 children had died in the epidemic, in a statement on its website on 13 May.

A number of Chinese websites and newspapers, including the Shanghai Morning Post, reported that the authorities had covered up the epidemic, prompting panic in Linyi. Nearly 300 people, mainly children, are being treated in the city’s hospitals.

Hand-foot-mouth is a viral infection which starts in the throat and is caused by the Coxsackie virus. It can be fatal if there are complications.

The Chinese authorities in 2002 and 2003 after banning publication of articles about the SARS epidemic for several months went in for a rapid turnaround in which they involved the media in a national propaganda campaign to fight the disease.

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