June 24, 2006

Calling China. Please, Would You Mind Sharing Information on Epidemics a Little Bit Faster? We Call That Ethics

A couple of days ago, the New England Journal of Medicine announced that it had accepted an article from eight Chinese scientists reporting that, upon retesting, a man initially thought to have died from SARS during the 2003 epidemic actually succumbed to avian flu (H5N1). If confirmed, this case would represent the earliest reported case of human bird flu infection on the Chinese mainland, approximately two years before the first official Chinese case of H5N1. Shortly after the issue had already gone to press, however, the lead author had reportedly sent several emails to the Journal asking that the manuscript be withdrawn. In a Hitchcockian (or perhaps Orwellian) twist, the New York Times reveals that the request to withdraw the paper now appears bogus.

The important question now is whether or not Chinese officials were directly involved. If so, they clearly have not heeded the lessons of 2003 when the public health community was outraged to learn the Chinese government hid dozens of SARS-related deaths with its months-long public denial of the epidemic. When millions or even billions of lives are at stake, public health should not be treated like a playground insult: “Nyah nyah! Your country has avian flu.” “Does not.” “Does too.”
- Sean Philpott, PhD, MS Bioethics, new Associate Director of AMBI

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