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Chinese Health Officials Fear Flu Season Could Bring Onslaught of SARS Cases - 2003-10-10

As winter approaches in China, government officials in Beijing are trying to stem public fears of a second possible outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS. Health officials are busy expanding the annual flu shot campaign to address worries that the flu will be misdiagnosed as SARS.

Health officials in China are gearing up for a possible onslaught of suspected SARS cases - as the traditional flu season approaches. In Beijing, a widespread public health campaign is advising city residents to get a vaccination to help prevent the spread of flu. More than 420 clinics are available to residents.

When the SARS outbreak appeared earlier this year, doctors in Beijing wasted valuable medical resources after misdiagnosing up to 1,000 flu sufferers with SARS. Symptoms such as fever, coughing and body aches are common to both illnesses.

Bob Dietz is the spokesperson for the World Health Organization in Beijing. He says Chinese health authorities are well aware that influenza patients can easily clog up SARS treatment centers.

"The last thing we want to do is have a lot of people coming into health care facilities with something that might or might not be SARS," he said. "And flu looks an awful lot like that. If we can keep the number of flu cases down this year, we could stop from muddying the water, if you will, about SARS diagnoses."

China's Health Ministry has also issued strict regulations for the nation's state-controlled news media on reporting of a possible SARS outbreak.

In a lengthy article in China's official People's Daily, Health Minister Wu Yi cautioned the news media not to report anything that has not been verified by her department. Ms. Wu says her aim is to prevent rumors and misunderstandings that can spur public panic.

The Chinese government has been accused of covering up the initial outbreak of SARS in the southern province of Guangdong for months before admitting to the true extent of the epidemic.

The sometimes-fatal respiratory disease spread to dozens of countries, infected thousands of people and killed hundreds before health officials could get a handle on this new virus in humans. More than 300 people across mainland China died of SARS between November 2002 and July 2003.

The scandal eventually led to the unprecedented dismissal of the country's health minister, Zhang Wenkang.