Fri, May 15, 2009 - Page 5 News List

China still finding its feet on health threats: experts

AFP , HONG KONG AND BEIJING

Six years after its sluggish response to SARS, China has been criticized for overreacting to swine flu, showing it still has to find the right prescription for dealing with a health crisis, experts said.

With memories of the SARS crisis still fresh, China reacted quickly and aggressively to keep the swine flu outbreak from its shores. But although China has learned from its attempted cover-up of the more deadly SARS in 2003, it had miscalculated the severity of the swine flu threat, upsetting other countries as a result, the experts said.

“The Chinese leaders do not understand the need to avoid overreaction. Their understanding of the foreign media and foreign public opinion has always been astonishingly inadequate,” said Cheng Li, a China scholar at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

China has aggressively screened incoming foreigners, suspending flights to and from Mexico — where the virus first emerged — and quarantining many foreigners.

Mexico complained bitterly at the Chinese moves, saying China was discriminating against its citizens by quarantining them even when they had no flu symptoms and had not traveled from Mexico. Canadian officials have raised similar concerns.

Such measures were imposed despite warnings from the WHO that they would have “very little effect” in containing the virus.

China and Hong Kong have so far confirmed four cases, all of them involving travelers from abroad.

“China’s swift and decisive action indicated the government had learned from the SARS episode that cover-up or inaction was not only impossible, but counterproductive,” said Yanzhong Huang, director of the Center for Global Health Studies at Seton Hall University in the US. “What the government is now doing, however, also suggests that it failed to differentiate between the viruses in terms of virulence and transmissibility.”

Beijing also banned pork imports from Mexico and areas of the US and Canada, where A(H1N1) has appeared — prompting Canada to threaten a WTO complaint — even though eating pork poses no risk.

“The measures taken by [China] are causing problems in its relations with other countries and the already bruised economy — pork prices dropped significantly because of the fear of pork products,” Huang said.

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