Gao Qiang stresses better prevention, but the WHO urges more transparency The mainland must improve rural health care and shore up its disease prevention and control measures if it is to stand a chance against repeat outbreaks of Sars or other illnesses, a government health chief said yesterday. Meanwhile, a World Health Organisation (WHO) expert said the country had to change its mindset and stop being secretive about problems which would benefit from the sharing of information. Health Vice-Minister Gao Qiang said: 'Our system of disease prevention and control is not strong. It was only last year that we started to [improve health infrastructure] and build our Centre for Disease Control.' He also said the mainland lacked the epidemiological information, medication and vaccinations to protect itself against another Sars outbreak. Mr Gao said providing adequate rural health care was the Ministry of Health's most important task. He said many farmers could not afford health care, and welfare did not always cover the costs. He said people in some areas did not have access to hospitals or fully trained doctors. Except for isolated cases caused by people travelling from affected areas such as Beijing, Sars has largely spared the rural areas. But WHO expert Bob Dietz said yesterday this might have been more through luck than planning, and that Sars would remain a concern into the autumn, when the disease could come back. Mr Dietz said the government needed a disease-prevention system that promoted the sharing of information. 'There's no mechanism, no mentality, no attitude, no mindset [for sharing information],' he said. 'When we've got a problem, we've got to tell other people instead of saying, 'Oh, my God, we've got a problem, I've got to keep it quiet'.' He added: 'This has opened up China. It has pointed up a weakness in China that China realises it has to fix.' The WHO's Western Pacific regional director, Shigeru Omi, said China's initial failure to report the true extent of the Sars outbreak had delayed international efforts to control the disease. 'There is a chance for the government and the people look at the system critically, and that's an issue we'd like to work on together,' Mr Omi said. The WHO hoped to expand on the mainland and would ask donors to help fund a bigger China programme, Mr Dietz said. In particular, the global agency wanted to help the country improve rural disease prevention and control. He said the organisation's mainland officials were particularly concerned about tuberculosis, which killed 700 people a day, and about health problems faced by the mainland's 320 million smokers. Mr Dietz acknowledged that asking the UN for more health-care funding could be difficult.