Bird Flu Killed 300 in China, Says Unofficial Report

November 26, 2005 Updated: November 26, 2005

This report is an update to the November 24 original, Bird Flu Killed 300 in China, WHO Expert Says , with possible inaccuracies corrected and information current as of November 26.

The bird flu has killed 100 times more people than Chinese officials admit, said an unofficial report presented by a World Health Organisation (WHO) avian influenza expert on November 20.

WHO bird flu consultant Dr. Masato Tashiro presented this unverified information, received from China via “private channels,” to a room of the world's top virologists, while speaking at the University of Marburg in Germany.

According to the data, at least 300 people have died from H5N1 bird flu in China and 3000 have been infected including seven cases of human-to-human transmission, reported the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ).

The implications of these numbers, if confirmed, are staggering. They point to an active human H5N1 epidemic in China.

Dr. Tashiro, head of the Department of Virology at the Japanese National Institute of Infectious Disease, and Director of the WHO Collaborating Center on Influenza at the Tokyo National Institute of Infectious Diseases, was reported by FAZ to have said that the West is being “systematically deceived” by Chinese authorities, and that he believes that the numbers he presented are from a reputable source. FAZ also reported that Dr. Tashiro compared the situation to Beijing's 2003 SARS cover-up, adding that five Chinese medical workers were detained by authorities for trying to report on the bird flu.

However, Dr. Tashiro later denied these claims. “I clarified [at the meetings] that I do not know the original sources and I cannot confirm whether they are true, how these numbers were derived and what laboratory tests and epidemiological investigation were done,” he wrote in a letter to the ProMED-Mail website hosted by the International Society for Infectious Diseases on November 24, stating flatly that he never said that he believed the data, nor claimed deception on the part of the Chinese authorities. Dr. Tashiro also told ProMED that his recent visit to China was not as part of an official WHO delegation.

Meeting attendee Professor Hans-Dieter Klenk of the University of Marburg confirmed that Dr. Tashiro presented data to the effect of 300 human deaths, according to Israel's Haaretz daily. Klenk also denied the FAZ reports of Dr. Tashiro's claims of cover-up by Chinese authorities, supporting Dr. Tashiro's letter to ProMED.

Case Closed?

While it is possible that the FAZ reporter sensationalized the story of Dr. Tashiro's presentation in Marburg, such a report from a high-level WHO official bears thorough examination.

“Due to poorly organized surveillance and information sharing systems in many affected countries including China, it is reasonable to consider that more cases have occurred actually,” Dr. Tashiro wrote to ProMED, explaining the take-home message he had hoped to deliver to his Marburg audience. Because the official numbers reflect only the laboratory-confirmed cases, he sees them as being only a small subset of the actual number of cases, what he called “an iceberg phenomenon.”

“In this context, I talked about a few examples of non-authorized information and rumors…which I received through private channels,” he wrote.

Until recently, Chinese authorities didn't allow for any independent analyses of their bird flu test results, and didn't share the details of their data. It was only with the entry of WHO personnel onto the Chinese bird flu scene that the first cases of H5N1 in humans were confirmed in China. This led the WHO to commend Beijing for being forthcoming with the realities of China's avian influenza. Officially, there have been just three bird flu deaths from 23 active bird flu outbreaks in birds across China.

However, numerous unconfirmed lines of evidence suggest that a bird flu epidemic in humans has been happening in China for quite some time. Several unofficial reports have suggested human bird flu deaths in the hundreds, with military-imposed quarantines and media blackouts attempting to contain both the disease and the knowledge of the damage it left in its wake.

Even bird flu outbreak reports in wild waterfowl were met with censorship. An influenza research centre was closed after it published thorough findings of an H5N1 outbreak in China and suggested that the disease would spread via migratory pathways to Europe – precisely what ended up happening last month. The Epoch Times documented these lines of evidence as early as last July.

According to the official WHO tally, as of November 25 there were 132 laboratory-confirmed cases of bird flu in humans, resulting in 68 deaths. The vast majority occurred since last December, and all were in Asia. Adding Dr. Tashiro's numbers to this would demonstrate an average H5N1 infection rate across the subcontinent 20-times-greater than was previously known.

With an ongoing rise in the avian influenza human death toll in Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia over the past two years, there is no reason to believe that China would have been spared similar cases. Perhaps the only good news from Dr. Tashiro's figures would be that they suggest a much lower death rate than those implied by the WHO stats – 10 percent instead of 50 percent.

Irrespective of whether the report that Dr. Tashiro presented is confirmed, it is still very likely that the official numbers are only, as Dr. Tashiro suggests, the tip of the iceberg.

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