Shanghai stifled flu 'rumours' in early days, says report

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 April, 2013, 11:12am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 April, 2013, 12:33pm

Online speculation about recent flu deaths in Shanghai was quickly muzzled prior to the confirmation of H7N9, reported China’s Southern Metropolis Daily on Wednesday.

The report said censors had shut down internet talk after the first few deaths from the virus but before a national lab confirmed H7N9 as a new strain of bird flu, weeks later.

The first weibo post about the H7N9 avian influenza emerged as early as March 7,  three weeks before local authorities alerted the public, said the report. An anonymous blogger on that day posted a message which reads:

“There have been a few unexplained deaths in the Fifth People’s Hospital of Shanghai. The preliminary diagnosis was flu. Their symptoms included respiratory failures. Will the hospital please tell us the truth?”

The post was quickly deleted. Other posts about the deaths also disappeared or were drowned out by netizens discussing the thousands of dead pigs found in a Shanghai river.

Hours later, Shanghai officials explained on weibo that health experts had already excluded the possibility of a bird flu outbreak. They acknowledged that two people had died at the Fifth People's Hospital - an 87-year-old man and his 55-year-old son - but said they died from complications and lung infections.

On the following day in an attempt to further “dispel rumours”, several Communist Party-owned newspapers in Shanghai published an article that blamed seasonal changes for an increased number of patients with respiratory disease, said the report.

Timeline: when H7N9 emerged and the online speculation
via the Southern Metropolis Daily

  • February 19 An 87-year-old man, surnamed Li, and his two sons check in at a Shanghai hospital after experiencing symptoms including fever.
  • February 26 Shanghai's medical experts suggest the possibility of a new virus after examining Li and his sons. The hospital send a sample of Li’s virus to a local lab.
  • March 4 Li dies. The first lab extracts H7N9 virus from his sample. The same sample is sent to a second lab.
  • March 7 The first speculation about the mysterious death emerges on weibo. The post is deleted hours later.
  • March 8 Shanghai newspapers deny existence of a new virus.
  • March 10 The second lab extracts H7N9 from Li’s sample. A second patient, Wu Liangliang, dies in Shanghai from the infection.
  • March 22 Shanghai sends a sample of the virus to a national lab for confiirmation.
  • March 30 The national lab confirms the virus to be H7N9 avian flu.
  • March 31 The Ministry of Health reveals the findings to the public.

View H7N9 map in a larger map

Click on each balloon for more information on individual patients infected: blue, patients infected with the H7N9 virus under treatment; red, those infected with H7N9 who have died; and pink, those infected with the Influenza A H1N1 virus.