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[BEIJING] China has tightened up its law on the prevention of epidemics requiring the public release of information about epidemics by medical institutions, and tightening the sanctions on those who are found to have withheld such information.

The move comes shortly after questions were raised about the fact that foreign researchers had been left unaware of research results, published in a Chinese language journal at the beginning of this year, indicating a possible infection of pigs by the bird flu virus.  

It takes the form of a revision of a previous law on preventing epidemics. The amendment was passed by the Chinese National People's Congress — the equivalent of the Chinese parliament — at the end of last month, and is intended to provide a legal basis for the release of information about epidemics.

The revised legislation stipulates, for example, that medical institutes and individuals must report epidemic information about a list of diseases in a timely fashion, and also report the outbreak of other unknown epidemics. In contrast, the previous version only required reporting two 'class A' diseases — namely plague and cholera — and 22 'class B' diseases.

The new law sets out in detail the timing and procedures to be followed in releasing information about epidemics, and also requires military medical institutions to report epidemic information to civil medical agencies in a timely fashion.

Last year, when severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) became widespread in China, health authorities refused at first to reveal full information about the outbreak. Their first excuse was that SARS was not listed in the previous law — meaning that they were under no obligation to make details public. They later also protested that there was no regular exchange of information between military hospitals (where many of the SARS patients were being treated) and the civil medical system.

Both the Chinese public and the international community only discovered what was happening through information smuggled out of the country by a retired military doctor, Jiang Yanyong.

Before abating in July 2003, SARS had killed 774 people worldwide, and infected a further 8,000.

In order to combat the rising threat of animal diseases, the new law also requires the timely reporting of animal epidemics. This contrasts sharply with the apparent foot-dragging by Chinese agriculture authorities in reporting findings by Chinese scientists that pig samples collected between 2001 and 2003 were infected with the H5N1 (or bird flu) virus.

Jia Youling, director of the Veterinary Bureau of the Ministry of Agriculture, said in a statement that the bird flu infection had been found as a result of an isolated experiment, and did not necessarily mean that bird flu infection had been found in pigs under in natural conditions.

But one observer in Beijing who has followed the issue closely states that, "The contrast between the late reporting of bird flu case and the new legal requirement means that China still lacks effective procedures for ensuring the timely release of accurate health information."

The revised law also includes rules protecting the privacy of former epidemic victims, and others that seek to eliminate prejudice against epidemic victims, such as China's 100 million Hepatitis B carriers, who are currently barred from employment in most government departments and companies in China.