China's health ministry said it will punish officials who underreport cases of swine flu after a doctor famous for exposing the extent of the 2003 SARS epidemic said he believes the true number of swine flu deaths is being covered up.
China's official count of swine flu cases is nearly 70,000 reported illnesses and 53 deaths, although even Beijing acknowledges the outbreak is much larger than the numbers show.
Health Ministry spokesman Deng Haihua said in a statement posted Thursday on the ministry's Web site that nine teams have been sent to 12 provinces to inspect local efforts to contain and treat the pandemic. Deng's statement warned officials not to hide or underreport cases or delay the reporting of swine flu details.
On Thursday, Dr. Zhong Nanshan, director of Guangzhou's Institute of Respiratory Diseases, said in the Guangzhou Daily newspaper that he believed local government officials were covering up swine flu deaths to make it appear as though their handling of the epidemic had been successful.
"I totally don't believe the total number of swine flu deaths have been reported nationwide," Zhong was quoted as saying. He said the number could be far higher.
There has been a dramatic spike in Chinese swine flu cases recently, and those reported by the government are only "minimum numbers," Dr. Michael O'Leary, WHO's top representative in China, has told The Associated Press.
The WHO, however, has said it wants China and other countries to focus on monitoring trends in the pandemic, not tracking every single case.
China's Health Minister Chen Zhu told the AP on Wednesday that China was vaccinating 1.5 million people a day against swine flu as part of a massive effort to try to reach as many as 90 million people _ about 7 percent of the country's population _ by the end of the year.