Officials in China sacked over pig disease cover-up

According to Xinhua the government news agency in China, four officials have been sacked for trying to cover up the trail of dead pigs, early in an outbreak of a swine-borne disease that has killed 39 people in southwest China.

Apparently the officials, all from the Sichuan province, had fabricated reports and deceived inspectors and reporters, tracing the spread of the Streptococcus suis bacteria.

To date, more than 200 people have contracted the disease in Sichuan, from slaughtering, handling or eating infected swine.

It seems that after 78 pigs died in Zizhong county in mid-July, the head of the county animal husbandry and food bureau, and three colleagues, wrote a report falsely claiming all the dead swine had been safely buried or their whereabouts were unknown.

They lied both to investigators and state television reporters.

The result was that weeks into the outbreak that has killed around 650 pigs in the province, many poor farmers were apparently ignoring orders to safely dispose of sick and infected swine and were still butchering, eating and even selling them.

When the reporters discovered the truth did not fit with what the officials claimed, the deception backfired and resulted in their dismissal, says local mayor Wang Minghui.

Although the outbreak in China's top pork-producing province was first reported in June it did not surface in the Chinese media until almost a month later.

The rest of the world had widely criticised China for initially covering up the 2002-2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which emerged in south China and spread across 30 nations, infecting nearly 8,500 people and killing about 800.

The central government had earlier vowed to punish anyone who falsified or delayed reports on the Streptococcus suis outbreak, this was before the four dismissals were reported.

Prior to this two officials from Ziyang city were sacked for failing to warn farmers about the disease.

Meanwhile health experts in southern Guangdong province, where two infections have been reported, have proposed testing all people involved in slaughtering or shipping pigs to see if any are carrying the bacteria.

China is still insisting the outbreak is under control.

But according to the Health Ministry over 100 victims are still in hospital in Sichuan and 10 are in a critical condition.

Although swine flu is endemic in most pig-rearing countries, human infections are rare.

China's state media has said no human-to-human infections have been found in Sichuan, but the death toll is considered unusually high.

Some experts believe an overuse of antibiotics could be behind the outbreak by encouraging the bacteria to mutate into a new, drug-resistant strain.

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