Swine flu figures rise as China gets tough

As the numbers rise from the swine flu outbreak, China authorities swear they will punish officials who falsify or delay reports on the deadly disease that has now infected 198 people and killed 36.

Meanwhile Hong Kong's government has adopted tough measures to protect against the disease.

According to state television, seventeen new infections of swine flu and two new deaths have been reported in China's southwestern province of Sichuan.

The disease has now spread to 108 villages and townships, six more since Sunday.

Officials in Beijing, which came under fire for covering up the Severe Acure Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak two years ago, insists the disease is under control.

The state media quotes a health official in Ziyang, where the outbreak was first reported in June, as saying the rates of new infections and deaths had fallen.

However as Chinese reporters are no longer allowed to visit affected areas, media coverage of the outbreak has been restricted, and newspapers have been told to publish Xinhua reports.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that China has done a good job of supplying information on the epidemic and taken extensive steps to block further infections.

The WHO has called for further laboratory testing because of the disease's unusual virulence.They say although many of the clinical features described in the outbreak are consistent with swine flu, the apparent proportion of patients showing severe illness and the level or mortality is high.

They add that any outbreak that shows unusual or previously unreported features requires a thorough clinical, laboratory investigation to obtain a complete picture.

A Sichuan government statement has said in cases of negligence, attempted cover-ups, failure to report, or delaying reports that lead to serious consequences and great losses, the person in charge will be held accountable.

Sichuan's livestock and food product bureau in Sichuan has also set a similar policy for veterinarians, demanding they respond rapidly to suspected infections and immediately report any confirmed new cases or else be held responsible for the consequences.

Last week two officials in Ziyang were sacked for failing to inform local farmers of the dangers of swine flu, and a health inspector was also dismissed for failing to conduct inspections himself, sitting in his car while farmers checked their pigs.

A loss of confidence in China resulted after it was widely criticised for initially covering up the 2002-2003 outbreak of SARS, which emerged in south China and spread across 30 nations, infecting nearly 8,500 people and killing around 800.

According to Chinese authorities all those taken ill in Sichuan had slaughtered, handled or eaten infected pigs, and stress that there has been no human-to-human transmission of the bacteria.

The government plans to produce enough vaccine to innoculate 10 million pigs and has sent a first batch of doses, enough for 350,000 animals, to the provincial capital, Chengdu, where infections have been reported.

Cases have also been reported in the southern province of Guangdong, neighbouring Hong Kong.

Sichuan, the country's top pork-producing province, has been forced to suspend all exports of chilled and frozen pork from Ziyang and surrounding Neijiang prefecture to Hong Kong, which said on Sunday that a second resident had contracted the disease.

In an attempt to ward off the disease, the Hong Kong government has ordered pig farmers in the city to strictly observe hygiene standards and to dispose of pig carcasses properly in designated areas or face steep fines and even six months in jail.

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