That was in March 2003. Jiang Yanyong, 72, a retired surgeon with Beijing’s No.301 Hospital, general hospital of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), like many ordinary people, had been spending most of his time in front of the TV watching news of the Iraqi war before SARS broke out and shocked China.
In early March, Jiang Yanyong was told by a colleague that a patient was transferred from No. 301 Hospital to No. 302 Hospital and had infected several medical workers. Later on, it was proved that the patient had contracted SARS. Beginning from March 20, medical workers in No. 301 Hospital increasingly contracted SARS, one by one. But people knew little about the epidemic disease. Dr. Jiang was no exception.
At the end of March, a medical professor who worked in No. 301 Hospital and was one of Jiang’s schoolmates, contracted lung cancer and was transferred to the surgical department for operation. Unexpectedly, he got a high fever and a shadow was found on his lung. After specialist consultation he was diagnosed with SARS and was isolated in the ICU (intensive care unit) in the hospital.
The professor’s case was sent to No. 309 Hospital for further consultation, as No.309 was then the SARS Control and Prevention Center of the PLA at that time. Dr. Jiang was so worried about his friend that he directly phoned experts in No.309 for detailed information about the SARS situation. To his surprise, he was told that there had already been 40 suspected and diagnosed patients and six deaths in No. 309 Hospital. He was shocked and decided to follow developments. The following day, he was told the figures had reached 60 patients and 7 deaths. In the mean time, Dr. Jiang found that there were 40 SARS patients in No. 302 Hospital too.
On April 3, former Health Minister Zhang Wenkang announced at a press conference held by the State Council Information Office that Beijing had reported 12 SARS cases and 3 deaths by March 31, while repeating again and again that China had effectively controlled the spread of SARS in relevant areas. Minister Zhang, cheerful and smiling, deeply impressed audiences with his comments to a foreign photojournalist who was wearing a gauze mask at the conference: “You are safe here whether you wear the gauze mask or not.”
Dr. Jiang was sitting in front of the TV watching the live reporting of the press conference. But nothing attracted his interest more than the figures the Minister had given. Only 12 cases? The statistics were too ridiculous to believe, Dr.Jiang thought, comparing them with the information in his hand.
The next day, Dr. Jiang came across two retired senior officers of the PLA Logistics Department and talked to them about his strong suspicions on the official SARS figures. The two senior officers shared the same view with him, saying that there must be something wrong with the health information publication. That same day, No. 301 Hospital reported 46 SARS patients. After hearing this, Dr. Jiang asked the medical managing department of the hospital to report new developments to higher authorities without any delay.
After making further confirmation of the number of diagnosed and suspected patients respectively receiving treatment in No. 301, No.302 and No.309 hospitals -- 46, 40 and 60 -- on April 4, Dr.Jiang wasted no time and wrote a letter and emailed it to CCTV-4 and Phoenix TV, hoping to bring the information to the public.
There was no response from the two media organizations in the following days. But by April 8, Dr. Jiang received a telephone call from Wall Street Journal reporters, asking for a telephone interview. The same day, Susan Jakes, a correspondent with Time, also contacted Dr. Jiang. Making sure that he really was the “Doctor Jiang” who had written the email, Susan Jakes interviewed him. Although she was not the first to interview him, Time published the interview on its website that evening. Later Susan Jakes said proudly that she had been very lucky.
On April 9, Jiang Yanyong suddenly became the focus of the world’s media, and the three telephones at his home were fully engaged by reporters from Associated Press, Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA) and AFP, eagerly asking for interview appointments. Meanwhile, the article entitled “Beijing’s SARS Attack,” published by Time, was translated into Chinese and popularized on the Internet. As for the statistics offered by Dr. Jiang, public health departments had kept silent.
On April 10, the World Health Organization (WHO) publicly criticized Beijing’s epidemic reporting system, pointing out that few hospitals in Beijing had daily SARS case reports. WHO sent experts to Beijing for investigation. On April 11, Beijing was designated as an infected area. However, the Ministry of Health didn’t publish the news. Instead, it maintained the previous day’s optimistic statement, saying, “The published epidemic information that day included all diagnosed cases in local and army hospitals."
On April 10, Jiang Yanyong attended an alumni party of Yanjing University, at which he was meeting a number of old friends, who were all doctors. He was told by Hu Yamei, an academician and doctor with the Beijing Children’s Hospital, that two children in the hospital had contracted SARS and their mothers too. Moreover, the hospital was warned by higher authorities that all hospitals had to “digest (treat) SARS patients by themselves.” Why? Dr. Jiang asked. The reply was that Ditan Hospital and You’an Hospital, two infectious hospitals in Beijing, were fully occupied with SARS patients and had already no room to receive those transferred from other hospitals.
On April 11, Dr. Jiang came to meet with management of No.301 Hospital, asking them to forward his suggestions to the higher authorities for public health. The suggestions were that: the minister of health admit his mistake and resign; the practice that every hospital “digest (treat) the SARS patients by itself” should be corrected for it was against the principle of infectious diseases handling. He also suggested some small hospitals be transformed to infectious hospitals as soon as possible and provided with experienced doctors and nurses. Finally he also stated, “If the statistics I reported prove to be wrong, I will immediately announce to the WHO and I will be willing to be punished. If the statistics released by the Ministry of Health are wrong, then please correct them.”
On April 12, Dr. Jiang submitted a letter to the management of No.301 Hospital again, asking to forward his suggestions to the Ministry of Health. He wrote in the letter: “Please send people from the Ministry of Health to verify and check the figures and materials with me. If the material I provided is incorrect, I will immediately make a statement to the world and acknowledge my mistake and I am willing to accept any due punishment. If the material from the Ministry of Health is not correct, then have the ministry make public the right number. Anyone who makes mistakes should be bold in acknowledging his or her mistakes. No sophistry or falsification is allowed in issuing public information in relation to public health and people’s lives. I sincerely hope that I could have the opportunity to work on the issue with you.”
On April 16, two journalists called Jiang after the WHO held a press conference. On the telephone, they told Jiang that the WHO had confirmed Jiang’s material and data on SARS.
On April 17, Chinese President Hu Jintao stressed at a meeting of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) that no one was allowed to cover the SARS situation.
On April 20, Vice Minister of Health Gao Qiang announced at a press conference that Beijing reported 339 diagnosed SARS cases and 402 suspected cases. On the same day, Xinhua News Agency said that the CPC Central Committee had dismissed former Health Minister Zhang Wenkang and former Beijing Mayor Meng Xuenong.
On April 26, Vice Premier Wu Yi began holding a concurrent post as the minister of health.
(Sanlian Life Weekly, No. 23, translated by China.org.cn staff, June 13, 2003)
Jiang’s Letter to CCTV-4 and Phoenix TV
(Sent April 4, 2003)
Recently the Hong Kong media made wide coverage of SARS, while the world communities also paid great attention to the epidemic detrimental to human life and health. A great deal of publicity was carried out to help the public take a positive attitude towards the issue. All this was normal and responsible.
Yesterday, the Chinese minister of health told a press conference that the Chinese government had dealt with the SARS issue conscientiously and that the disease had been put under control. According to his figures, Beijing has 12 SARS cases of which three have died. It’s virtually unbelievable. Zhang Wenkang is a graduate from the Second Military Medical University, but he abandoned his career in the most fundamental sense of moral integrity as a doctor. Today, I visited the wards and found that all the doctors and nurses were angry after watching yesterday’s news. Hence I wrote to you. I hope that you will also do your best to be responsible for human life and health by using your upright voices to join in the fight against SARS.
The following is some limited information to my knowledge:
When the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference began to hold their annual sessions in Beijing, No. 301 Hospital admitted an old man who was seriously ill. Suspected of being infected with SARS, he was transferred to No. 302 Hospital (a special hospital for infectious diseases – editor). Due to a lack of experience, some 10 doctors and nurses in the hospital were infected with the disease during the process of treating the patient. Two days in No. 302 Hospital, the old man died. His wife was sent to the same hospital and soon died too. At the time, the Ministry of Health convened a meeting of directors from various hospitals, notifying that Beijing had SARS, but as a discipline, the news was not to be made known to the public in order to create a stable environment for the two conferences.
Soon after, the Liver Surgery Department of No. 301 Hospital admitted a patient of liver and gallbladder diseases who latter showed SARS symptoms. The patient was moved to No. 309 Hospital but later died. Unfortunately two doctors and three nurses at the liver and gallbladder ward were infected with SARS. Thanks to timely treatment, they are now recovering, but the ward had to be closed. Similar cases happed to several other wards in No. 301 Hospital. The kindergarten of the hospital was also closed.
After watching the TV news yesterday I called No. 309 hospital (now designated by the General Logistics Department of the People’s Liberation Army as a special hospital for SARS patients). The doctors there also watched the news, saying what Zhang said did not tally with the fact since their hospital had admitted some 40 SARS patients of whom six died yesterday.
The above information is true and I am accountable for it.