On September 3, People's Hospital in Chongzhou City, Sichuan Province, was packed with people complaining of diarrhea and fever, classic symptoms of food poisoning. Other hospitals in the city and in neighboring Chengdu and Wenjiang cities also received dozens of patients, mostly schoolchildren, suffering the same symptoms. Provincial health authorities have been unclear since the incident as to exactly how many people were affected or hospitalized. Xinhua reporters have discovered that numbers were fudged by officials in an attempt to downplay the matter.
The students who had taken ill were from Chongzhou City Experimental Primary School in Chongzhou City. About 1,000 students are enrolled at the school. On September 1, over 1,000 students and staff had their lunch in the school canteen. Many were taken ill soon after. Local authorities at the time said that 45 people were receiving treatment in various hospitals in the area.
However, Xinhua learned that more than 200 students were being treated for food poisoning at the People's Hospital, Xiehe Hospital and Traditional Chinese Medicine Hospital in Chongzhou, and several other patients had been sent to other hospitals outside Chongzhou for treatment.
When Chongzhou authorities were asked to verify the matter, they either said nothing or insisted that their figure of 45 was correct. According to Xinhua, officials also avoided discussing the cause of the food poisoning.
An employee at Chongzhou Traditional Chinese Medicine Hospital, who refused to give her name, said on Monday: "Officials have ordered that we should get permission from the city's health bureau before we answer questions from the media." After repeated requests to speak with hospital officials, she said that they could not be connected. A man who claimed to be the assistant to the hospital dean said that staff were too busy to count just how many students they had treated.
Xinhua reporters encountered a similar reluctance by school staff to provide any information.
Even a press release issued by the Publicity Department of the Chengdu Party Committee at 8 PM Monday failed to give any exact figures, but stated that the Chengdu city government was taking over publicity matters, given the seriousness of the case. Official permission was therefore required for interviews.
On Tuesday, Liu Jun, deputy director of the Chengdu Health Bureau, announced that 606 people had been subjected to screening at the local hospital, but it was unclear whether they had actually been examined. At press time, 516 students were still under medical observation.
Liu gave another press conference on Wednesday, saying that 57 people had been diagnosed with food poisoning, and were in a stable condition. He said that no deaths had been reported.
Disease control and sanitary inspection experts led by officials from the Sichuan provincial health department are investigating and helping with the treatment of sick pupils.
Meanwhile, local authorities have pledged that all the victims of the food poisoning outbreak will receive free medical treatment.
Classes were suspended on Monday and the entire school compound disinfected. School sources said classes would resume when most of the affected pupils have recovered.
In January this year, the State Council issued a national emergency response plan. The plan stipulates that related authorities are to release at least basic information about incidents to the public as soon as possible after they happen. Confirmed and verified information, measures taken by related governments and public reminders can be released later. The plan also stipulates how the late or non-filing or falsifying of reports are to be dealt with.
However, a local official who refused to be named said that incidents such as this, where the number of victims is over 100, spell major trouble for local governments because they have a huge impact on their performance evaluations.
(China.org.cn, Xinhua News Agency, September 7, 2006)