Chinese health officials deny reports of suspected cases of SARS, bird flu

Chinese health officials Monday denied reports that dozens of people have been sickened by bird flu or the SARS pneumonia in southern China and quarantined in a local hospital.

The reports last week by Hong Kong media said the patients had been isolated in the No. 8 People's Hospital in the city of Guangzhou for either bird flu or severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. The reports touched off fears of an epidemic amid flu season as temperatures drop.

Health officials in Guangdong province, where Guangzhou is located, denied the reports.

"No such thing has happened. It's all rumors," said an official at the provincial health bureau, who would give only his surname, Wu.

A report on state television's Web site quoted Xiong Yuanda, deputy head of the Guangzhou health bureau, as saying that the reports were "baseless and that there are no cases of a contagious disease of unknown origins" in the city.

The reports and the denials bore reminders of the SARS outbreak in late 2002-early 2003. There were sporadic reports of an outbreak of a strange new disease. Many of the ill were hospitalized at the No. 8 Hospital, which specializes in the treatment of infectious diseases, while for weeks officials denied and suppressed media reports on the outbreak.

Health experts worldwide criticized Beijing's refusal to release timely information, saying the official reticence contributed to the disease's spread to Vietnam, Singapore, Canada and elsewhere. SARS eventually killed 774 people worldwide before fizzling out in the summer of 2003.

Since then, China has promised a more open and aggressive campaign against diseases like bird flu, which experts fear could mutate into a strain that passes easily between humans, potentially sparking a global pandemic. So far, 14 people have died from the H5N1 strain in China.

"Every local health agency is required to report epidemic outbreaks as promptly as possible, and we will keep the press and the people informed of any news," Xinhua quoted Liao Xinbo, deputy director of the Guangdong Health Bureau, as saying.

The World Health Organization has made inquiries with the Health Ministry but has not received a response, said Joanna Brent, the agency's spokeswoman in Beijing.

The ministry did not respond to a faxed request for information on Monday.

A man who answered the telephone at the No. 8 People's Hospital in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong, denied the reports before hanging up.

While SARS and bird flu are caused by different viruses, they have similar symptoms, including high fever, coughing and breathing problems.

Last year, China confirmed that a soldier died of bird flu in 2003, two years before it publicly acknowledged its first human infection, reports AP.

The 24-year-old man died of pneumonia and was initially thought to have SARS, but the Health Ministry said tests recently performed with the WHO confirmed it was bird flu.

The case raised questions about Beijing's ability to detect new emerging diseases.

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