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China more transparent in handling epidemics: experts

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Experts have praised China for its increased transparency in handling public health incidents, after the emergence of the lesser-known H7N9 bird flu, which has killed six people since the deadly strain was exposed a week ago.

The Chinese government has been credited with timely releases of information about the H7N9 bird flu, whereas in 2003, authorities were criticized for initially trying to cover up an epidemic of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) which claimed the lives of several hundred people on the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

"China has learned a lesson from the past in dealing with public health emergencies," said Prof. Wang Yukai of the Chinese Academy of Governance.

"The government's response to the disease is completely different from 10 years ago, when information disclosure systems were not established."

The reported 16 human infections, all in east China's Yangtze River Delta, have touched a raw nerve in society, but there has not been excessive panic.

Information about H7N9 was made public by the National Health and Family Planning Commission the day after the first infection was confirmed on March 30, though the determination process took days.

Since then, the commission has kept updating information on new infections on its official website, detailing the patients' ages, location and medical measures adopted. It has also given the public tips on prevention.

"Over the past decade, the Chinese government has formulated a series of plans for handling infectious diseases and food safety incidents," according to Wang.

A regulation for dealing with public health emergencies came out in May 2003, when the country was at a critical stage in combating SARS.

It led to the promulgation of China's Emergency Handling Law in August 2007. Moreover, a regulation concerning government information disclosure took effect in 2008, requiring the government to be more transparent in releasing information, Wang noted.

"The government drew lessons from the handling of SARS," said Ma Huaide, vice president of the China University of Political Science and Law. If the government covers up epidemic information, rumors will spread quickly, which is not conducive to social stability and epidemic control, Ma said.

The government's increased urgency in making timely releases of information following public health incidents has also been attributed by experts to the increasing awareness of the public and their demand for the rights of knowledge, expression and supervision. The Internet has also sped up the spread of information.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/asianet/130409/china-more-transparent-handling-epidemics-experts