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[BEIJING] Science journalists in China have been urged to present a wider range of scientific opinions in their news reports in order to give the public a fuller picture of emerging health crises.

The recommendation was made during the 4th Asia-Pacific Symposium on Press and Scientific and Social Progress, which took place last week in Beijing.

Cui Zhizhong, a professor of epidemiology at Shandong Agricultural University of China, told participants at the meeting that it was necessary to have authoritative scientific information to allay public fears during public health crises whose causes remain unclear.

But Cui said the Chinese media is used to seeking only official explanations of what is happening during epidemics. "Sometimes official sources of information react too slowly, while at other times they are not comprehensive, so some contrasting scientific views should be reported," he said.

Cui mentioned in particular the cases of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and bird flu epidemics, both of which have dealt hard blows to the Chinese health system during the past two years.

SARS killed 774 people worldwide and infected a further 8,000 in 2002 and 2003. China’s health authorities initially refused to reveal detailed information about the outbreak.

According to Zeng Guang, chief scientist of epidemiology at China's Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, the resulting lack of public awareness could have contributed to the spread of the disease.

China's Ministry of Agriculture appeared to have learnt lessons from the SARS epidemic earlier this year. During the bird flu outbreak, it provided a daily information service, and held regular news conferences to keep the public informed.

However, Cui says information released by the Chinese government during the bird flu outbreak was not enough to ease public concern about chickens and chicken meat.

"For example, there were cases of Thai or Vietnamese people dying after eating chicken suspected to be infected with the bird flu virus, but there was no scientific proof linking their deaths to the disease," said Cui.

"People were not informed of [the lack of evidence]. As a result, millions of people refused to eat chicken and the poultry industry was hit hard."

In such situations, said Cui, both scientists and science journalists should challenge established scientific positions or 'authoritative' statements.

During the SARS and bird flu crises, there were many unknown factors and different experts had different opinions about the diseases and their transmission. Zeng says that science journalists should report these varying opinions, so long as they are expressed logically and based on accurate experimental data.

However, many Chinese media professionals at last week's symposium complained that the government continued to block information and censor news after SARS. This, they said, discouraged them from reporting conflicting scientific views, particularly those challenging the government's official position.