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A new openness as new bird flu virus spreads in China

Editor's note: This story includes a correction.

BEIJING – Dr. Jiang Rongmeng had no sooner walked out of the hospital door when he was mobbed by journalists. Camera crews jostled for position and microphones jousted in front of his face as he was bombarded with demands for information about the latest case of bird flu.

In Hong Kong or Taiwan this wouldn't be an unusual sight, but in Beijing it's rarer to see such raw displays of journalistic pushiness.

Rongmeng is Dr. Bird Flu -- he is the chief physician at the Center for Infectious Diseases at Beijing's Ditan Hospital. Since the weekend, when the capital announced its first case of the deadly new H7N9 virus -- the victim is a 7-year-old girl -- he's been a man in demand.

On Monday a 4-year-old boy was found to be carrying the virus -- though without symptoms, a discovery that has further puzzled experts. In both cases the parents were live poultry traders.

The girl was well enough Tuesday to leave intensive care; the boy remains in quarantine.

When asked if he expected more cases, Ronmeng said: "It is possible. It's certainly possible."

As the figures have ballooned -- 63 cases now with 14 deaths since March -- and spread from the eastern provinces, the authorities seem to have concluded after initial hesitation that openness is the best strategy.

It appears they have learned from the deadly SARS pandemic that struck 10 years ago. It started in China before spreading worldwide, killing hundreds, and was made worse by a government cover-up.

The World Health Organization has even praised the authorities for their new openness.

To some extent, though, they are bowing to the inevitable: H7N9 is the first such outbreak in the era of social media. Information is tougher to control, and when it's restricted, rumor can run rife.

One local newspaper reported that 13 people have been arrested for spreading rumors about the disease on social media.

But not everybody is convinced. At the Ditan Hospital, Yang Shengli scoffed at the suggestion of government openness.

"It's hard to say if the government really is telling the truth," she said, as she brought in her feverish 16-year-old daughter for tests. Thankfully it wasn't bird flu.

In Beijing the response to the first case, the 7-year-old girl, seems to have been quick and efficient. Her parents had reportedly bought their chickens in the east, in Tianjin, and some of those chickens were sold to the neighbor of the 4-year-old boy hospitalized Tuesday.

Health authorities quickly followed the chicken trail, and when NBC arrived in the boy's village on the outskirts of Beijing Monday, loudspeakers were calling on anybody to come forward if they had bought chickens from the neighbor or the boy's parents.

Officials in white coats and masks were disinfecting the streets and roadblocks had been set up in and out of the village. Cars were searched, and even frozen poultry was confiscated.

So far there is no evidence that the H7N9 virus spreads from human to human, although there is one ambiguous case of a husband and wife in Shanghai that is causing concern.

One big challenge for the authorities is that chickens carrying the virus do not appear to show any signs of sickness. And the symptomless 4-year-old is also creating more uncertainty.

But there are no signs of panic -- only worry, with sales of chicken pretty much drying up and neighboring countries on alert.

"We absolutely should not be panicking," said Dr. Tristan Evely, medical director of the International SOS China, a Beijing clinic. "But high vigilance and monitoring of the situation is absolutely crucial at this point of time."

Related links: 

It started with a cough: Deadly China bird flu outbreak raises fears of pandemic

Deaths from new bird flu underscore grim fears, reports show

US rushes to make vaccine against new bird flu -- just in case

New H7N9 bird flu has officials worried about skimpy resources