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Thursday, Jan. 15, 2004

China more open, at least on medical front

HONG KONG -- Last year, after China was caught suppressing information about the deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, it dismissed the minister of health and the mayor of Beijing and dramatically opened its health-care system up to international scrutiny. There was much hope then that the disease would usher in a new era of governmental openness.

This hope has not been realized, at least not yet, but the emergence of a new case of SARS in Guangzhou in December shows that China has, indeed, become more open at least as far as SARS -- and probably other contagious diseases -- is concerned.

The patient, a 32-year-old television producer, developed a fever and headache on Dec. 16 but did not seek medical assistance at Zhongshan University First Affiliated Hospital until four days later, when he was diagnosed as having pneumonia and placed under observation. On Dec. 24, he was transferred to the Guangzhou 8th People's Hospital. On Dec. 26, the World Health Organization was informed. On Monday, Jan. 5, the case was confirmed as SARS.

While China took six days before notifying WHO, that body since then has had nothing but praise for the cooperation that it has received from Chinese health authorities. In a statement issued jointly with the Chinese Health Ministry on Jan. 2, the WHO said it was pleased with the cooperation of the provincial health authorities and "the open manner in which information has been exchanged."

WHO also said that it "believes that this is an example of China's willingness to control SARS and be a full partner in the international health reporting system." But it did add that there were "some aspects of the system that still need to be addressed," such as expediting "further investigation into animal and environmental reservoirs." The Chinese authorities have announced that 10,000 civet cats in Guangdong markets, suspected as a source of SARS, would be slaughtered.

This new openness where health matters are concerned is also evident in the way China is now handling HIV/AIDS issues. While in the past China had tried to minimize the looming AIDS crisis, now it is finally confronting the seriousness of the problem. Last month, on World AIDS Day, Premier Wen Jiabao visited a Beijing hospital and shook hands with AIDS patients in an attempt to counter widespread discrimination against them.

Previously, China had denied the seriousness of AIDS in the country and had even penalized AIDS workers who had given information to foreigners on the disease. Now, public service announcements on TV urge people to use condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS.

This more open attitude stems from a more realistic approach by the new ruling group headed by President Hu Jintao. In a sign that this greater openness may not be limited to health care, Minister Zhao Qizheng, head of the State Council's Information Office, disclosed in a New Year interview with the China Daily that a three-tie information system will be set up this year for all central government ministries and provincial-level governments to make policies more transparent.

Twenty-five years ago, there was only one source of official information in the whole country: the Information Department of the Foreign Ministry. Twenty years ago, the ministry instituted weekly press conferences while ministries and major departments designated spokesmen to respond to questions by the media, both foreign and domestic. The setting up of a more efficient system for making information available to the public both in China and in the world will be a major step forward.

The China Daily ran a cartoon on its editorial page showing a spokesman disclosing facts and figures to assembled newsmen while, on the side, three men were gathered conspiratorially as one of them told the others, "I've just heard . . ." The message was clear: In the absence of real information, rumors will spread.

No doubt, it will take time for China to shake off its old ways. Even now, rumors continue to spread of other suspected SARS cases in Guangzhou.

It is understandable that the authorities should be concerned about unfounded rumors spreading panic, but should they prove to be true, the government should not hesitate to make a frank admission and take appropriate steps. After all, openness and transparency are the best ways to counter rumors, not secrecy and punishment.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.

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