China confirmed yesterday that a man died of bird flu in 2003, two years before it reported its first human infection, in a case that has prompted health experts to question the country's ability to detect new diseases.
The 24-year-old soldier, identified only by his surname, Shi, became ill in November 2003 and was treated for pneumonia of unknown origin, the Health Ministry said on its Web site.
He died four days later and was suspected of contracting SARS, from which China was just recovering at the time, the official Xinhua News Agency said. The two diseases have similar symptoms.
After a fresh battery of tests last month on the man's lungs, tissue and blood samples, "a team of experts has confirmed ... that it was a human case of the H5N1 strain of bird flu," the Health Ministry said.
The case was disclosed in June in a letter by Chinese researchers to The New England Journal of Medicine. It raised concerns about China's ability to track emerging diseases and cooperate with the WHO and other international bodies.
"It's good that this case came to light," said Roy Wadia, a WHO spokesman in Beijing. "It shows that the internal communication mechanism needs further improvement, needs further strengthening."
Shi's death came two years before China reported its first avian flu case and as the virus was tearing though Vietnam and Thailand.
The WHO has said Shi was treated at a military hospital in Beijing.
Military hospitals, which answer to the secretive People's Liberation Army, figured prominently in China's lengthy delay in reporting the true scale of the spread of SARS in Beijing in the spring of 2003.
China's reluctance to release timely information about the emergence of SARS in late 2002 to early 2003 has been criticized by health experts for contributing to the disease's spread.
SARS eventually killed 774 people worldwide.
The H5N1 strain of bird flu has killed least 135 people worldwide since it began ravaging Asian poultry stocks in late 2003.
China reported the first of its 19 human cases last year. The country has suffered 12 deaths.