Online speculation about recent flu deaths in Shanghai was quickly muzzled prior to the confirmation of H7N9, reported China’s Southern Metropolis Daily on Wednesday.
The report said censors had shut down internet talk after the first few deaths from the virus but before a national lab confirmed H7N9 as a new strain of bird flu, weeks later.
The first weibo post about the H7N9 avian influenza emerged as early as March 7, three weeks before local authorities alerted the public, said the report. An anonymous blogger on that day posted a message which reads:
“There have been a few unexplained deaths in the Fifth People’s Hospital of Shanghai. The preliminary diagnosis was flu. Their symptoms included respiratory failures. Will the hospital please tell us the truth?”
The post was quickly deleted. Other posts about the deaths also disappeared or were drowned out by netizens discussing the thousands of dead pigs found in a Shanghai river.
Hours later, Shanghai officials explained on weibo that health experts had already excluded the possibility of a bird flu outbreak. They acknowledged that two people had died at the Fifth People's Hospital - an 87-year-old man and his 55-year-old son - but said they died from complications and lung infections.
On the following day in an attempt to further “dispel rumours”, several Communist Party-owned newspapers in Shanghai published an article that blamed seasonal changes for an increased number of patients with respiratory disease, said the report.