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Top SARS expert says 'coverup' of flu deaths in China likely.

BEIJING, Nov. 19 Kyodo

A leading Chinese expert on respiratory diseases, also known as one of the SARS whistle-blowers for challenging official accounts of infections during the SARS outbreak in 2003, has expressed doubt over the number of deaths from H1N1 influenza being reported on the mainland, a Guangzhou newspaper reported Thursday.

Zhong Nanshan, the leading figure in the country's fight against SARS six years ago, told the Guangzhou Daily in an interview that he believes ''individual Chinese regions'' are covering up deaths from the flu infection while reporting that the flu is under control.

''I absolutely do not believe in the number of deaths reported from H1N1 influenza in the country,'' Zhong was quoted by the newspaper as saying, and warned the consequences of a coverup will be severe.

''I am most turned off by the practice of not performing autopsies or reporting on the deaths of H1N1 patients. This will definitely lead to more severe consequences,'' Zhong said.

China has as of Sunday reported 53 deaths from H1N1 since the first case was reported on the mainland in May.

Of this number, 28 deaths were reported last week, according to the Health Ministry.

A total of 69,160 infections had been reported by last weekend.

In the interview, Zhong also said he believes the number of flu infections on the mainland will peak earlier than expected as a result of the cold spell that has affected many parts of China recently.

At its peak, he said 10 to 20 percent of the mainland's population of more than 1.3 billion people will be infected, quoting figures from the research institution Chinese Academy of Engineering.

During the SARS outbreak, Zhong, who is also director of the Guangzhou Respiratory Diseases Research Institute, had been one of the first medical doctors on the mainland to challenge government statistics on SARS infections as grossly underreported.

Another Chinese doctor, military surgeon Jiang Yanyong, publicly accused health and government officials of covering up the outbreak.

When the first cases of SARS first broke out in the southern Chinese province Guangdong in late 2002, local officials failed to report them to the World Health Organization until months later when the disease had spread beyond the country.

China later sacked its health minister over the scandal and Chinese President Hu Jintao ordered accurate reporting of the disease.

After news of the first H1N1 infections broke out earlier this year, China had, in contrast, moved swiftly to set up a national surveillance system and vowed transparency in the case of an epidemic.

The Chinese Health Ministry has also regularly provided updates to the public and media on the latest figures on flu infections and deaths, collated from statistics reported by provincial and regional health bureaus.

Local provincial governments in China are, however, prone to withholding and covering up negative information on issues ranging from health problems to pollution in order to avoid criminal action or bureaucratic penalties.
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Publication:Asian Economic News
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Nov 23, 2009
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