China’s annual “Golden Week” holiday, which started Monday, is a time for millions of Chinese to vacation in neighboring countries, boosting commercial activity and person-to-person contact. But with the rise in China of a new bird flu called H7N9, which has killed 23 people and infected over 120 more, and with one case now confirmed outside the Chinese mainland, Asian countries are also bracing for the potential outbreak of a highly lethal virus. Global health depends on China being as forthcoming with information as possible, so that other nations can take appropriate precautions.
Since the SARS outbreak a decade ago, China has learned that there is little benefit to keeping a virus hidden from international health officials and the public. By all accounts, including that of the World Health Organization, the Chinese government and state media have been more open about the spread and genetic makeup of the disease, encouraging citizens to share information. The Chinese government has also taken some preventative measures, going so far as to close down poultry markets.
Still, it remains unclear how the virus is being transmitted. More than half the patients have had no contact with poultry, and China believes that some cases were the product of human-to-human transmissions. This week, the number of cases appears to have peaked, which could mean that China is succeeding in limiting further transmissions. Nonetheless, the new Chinese government could be doing more. The Chinese Center for Disease Control suddenly — and without any announced reason — made the decision last Thursday not to release an English-language version of the relevant statistics and facts in this developing case.
Meanwhile, the Chinese are in the best position now to come up with a vaccine, but would clearly benefit from seeking help from the United States, which has been successful at developing vaccines for flu strains in the past. Of course, the best approach is to stop a virus in its tracks. China owes the rest of the world a full account of its efforts to isolate patients and ensure that infected people don’t spread the virus beyond its borders.