China to get U.S. training on handling outbreaks

BEIJING (Reuters) - The United States is expanding a training program for Chinese health officials to include communications to promote transparency during disease outbreaks, the director of the U.S. Center for Disease Control said on Thursday.

Southern China’s mix of densely populated cities, crowded wet markets, a relatively warm climate and close proximity of humans, poultry and animals in the countryside mean new diseases can develop there before spreading worldwide in an age of global trade and fast transport.

The United States has trained dozens of Chinese ‘disease detectives,’ and will now add a program to train officials who would communicate with the public, to improve transparency and accuracy of information, Julie Gerberding told reporters.

“When you are in the middle of an outbreak or a serious public health threat, you can do everything perfectly but if you don’t communicate effectively, you will not succeed,” she said.

China has improved transparency since the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, which originated in Southern China in 2002 and killed hundreds around the world.

After an initial cover-up, the government instituted disclosure, reporting and response procedures that some experts say paid off this May, when the country responded rapidly to a devasting earthquake in Sichuan province.

But cover-ups can still claim lives. Thousands of Chinese babies were sickened and at least four died after drinking baby formula contaminated with melamine. The dairy firm that sold the powder did not publicize the danger for weeks while Beijing hosted the Olympic Games.

Gerberding warned that complacency can also help diseases spread, including bird flu, which is endemic in poultry in Asia and has claimed 245 human lives since late 2003, and AIDS, which is often spread by people who don’t realize they have it.

(Reporting by Lucy Hornby; Editing by Bill Tarrant)

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