Doctor faults official figures on SARS

Chinese Health Ministry downplaying number of cases, physician charges


BEIJING - A senior retired military physician said China's Health Ministry was lying about the number of people hospitalized with SARS pneumonia in Beijing, noting that the number in military hospitals alone could be "up to 100."

In a statement released to news organizations and in a subsequent interview, Dr. Jiang Yanyong said he "couldn't believe" what he was hearing when China's health minister announced last Thursday that Beijing had only 12 cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome and three SARS-related deaths.

He said doctors at military hospitals were "furious" about the statement. The day of the announcement, he added, the military hospital designated to treat SARS cases had 60 patients and seven deaths from the disease.

"As a doctor who cares about people's lives and health, I have a responsibility to aid international and local efforts to prevent the spread of the disease," Jiang wrote in his statement to the news media.

Another doctor in the Chinese health system, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there were also dozens of patients at You'An Hospital, the nonmilitary hospital in Beijing that has been designated as a referral center for SARS.

Although the number of cases is not great, the fact that so many have gone unreported in Beijing underscores China's continuing lack of transparency in confronting an outbreak that has left 1,279 ill and 53 dead in this country. Worldwide, 2,750 have been infected and 103 have died.

In China, health statistics are often regarded as state secrets, particularly if they are negative. China's leaders are reluctant to release bad news occurring in Beijing, the capital.

In fact, Jiang said the first case of SARS in Beijing occurred early last month, during the annual national legislative meeting. Ten doctors and nurses at a military hospital were infected after contact with that patient, he said.

Hospital leaders in Beijing were called to the Ministry of Health for a meeting. But instead of instructing them to issue a public health warning, Jiang said, the ministry told the doctors that they were "forbidden to publicize" the fact that SARS had arrived in Beijing, "in order to insure stability" as the legislature convened.

In Beijing yesterday, a WHO team investigating the SARS outbreak in China praised what they referred to as "extensive" and "reliable" data that has been provided to them from Guangdong province, where the SARS outbreak started. But they said data from elsewhere in China seemed far less complete.

The visiting WHO team met for more than an hour with Chinese Vice Premier Wu Yi, who promised to look into the rumors of unreported cases in Beijing, team members said.

In Hong Kong, SARS continued to spread, infecting 42 more people and killing three, including one American. Malaysia became the first country to ban tourists from Hong Kong and mainland China for health reasons.

A Hong Kong Hospital Authority spokeswoman said last night that a 51-year-old American man suffering from SARS had been brought across the border from Shenzhen in mainland China. The man arrived unconscious at a Hong Kong hospital and was declared dead a half-hour later.

The man's 6-year-old son was also hospitalized with the disease.

The man's last name was Salisbury, the spokeswoman said. The Associated Press reported that his first name was James and that he had been an English instructor at a polytechnic institute on the mainland.

Also yesterday, South African health officials gave details of what they called that continent's first "probable" case of SARS.

The patient, officials said, was a 62-year-old man who had recently visited Hong Kong, where the disease is most prevalent. He was admitted to Pretoria Hospital on Monday suffering respiratory problems. Medical tests have come back negative for SARS, officials said. But the results were not conclusive, and officials said they were awaiting more results next week.

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