China said Tuesday its first confirmed human death from bird flu was in 2003, two years earlier than previously reported, showing that the virus was present on the mainland before the latest outbreak was first disclosed elsewhere in Asia.
The health ministry confirmed the case through laboratory tests that were carried out with the World Health Organization (WHO) and researchers from the Chinese Academy of Military Medicine, the ministry said on its website.
It identified the victim as a 24-year-old private in the People's Liberation Army surnamed Shi.
The ministry began the tests after eight Chinese scientists published a letter in the New England Journal of Medicine in June, claiming Shi became ill on November 25, 2003, from bird flu and later died.
China had previously said its first human bird flu case was in November 2005.
The new confirmed case brings the official Chinese death toll from bird flu to 13, out of a total of 20 reported human cases.
Although nearly three years had passed since Shi died in Beijing, the government said there was no reason to worry about its ability to react quickly.
"People shouldn't panic," said Mao Qun'an, a spokesman for the health ministry, according to state-run Xinhua news agency. "The country's bird flu surveillance capability is much stronger now than it was two years ago."
The confirmation of the 2003 case in China could change the timeframe for the current outbreak of the disease regionally. Until now the first reported signs in Asia of the H5N1 virus were poultry deaths in South Korea in late 2003.
The first human death from bird flu was reported in Vietnam in January 2004. Since then over 220 people have caught the virus, resulting in around 130 fatalities.
Indonesia Tuesday reported its 43rd and 44th bird flu deaths, making it the world's hardest hit nation.
However, Roy Wadia, a Beijing-based spokesman for the WHO, said it was too early to pass judgment on whether the ongoing regional outbreak originated in China.
"I don't think we can conclusively prove anything at this point in time. It just shows that the virus has been in this part of the world for a long, long time," he said.
Hong Kong was the scene of the world's first reported major bird flu outbreak among humans in 1997, when six people died and more than two million poultry were culled.
It is believed to have been dormant in the region in the period from the late 1990s until the present outbreak.
Wadia said he did not want to speculate on any cover-up in the case of bird flu, but it highlighted weaknesses in the way officials report threats to public health.
"This actually pinpoints a challenge facing the communication mechanism within the Chinese government structure," he said.
Wadia said there might be other sporadic human cases dating back to around 2003 that were not initially detected in China.
"At that time, of course, it was not seen as an infection of humans. So it would not be surprising if there was confusion and cases were actually missed," he said.
Wadia said one lingering concern was that authorities still did not know how Shi contracted the disease.
"It will certainly be helpful to know what the source of this man's infection was. We've been told that they haven't been able to pinpoint the exact source of this man's infection," he said.
Chinese health ministry officials were taken aback when they learned of the evidence that the patient was a genuine bird flu victim from reading about it in a foreign academical journal, according to Wadia.
"It shows you that the military scientists as well also have to be better integrated into the reporting mechanism," he said.
China was widely criticized for initially covering up the deadly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in late 2002 and early 2003, enabling the virus to spread more easily and kill hundreds globally.
Foreign media, informed by a retired army doctor, eventually exposed the SARS cover-up.
The government has since said it has learnt from its mistakes and vowed no cover-ups of bird flu or other similar diseases.All rights reserved. © 2005 Agence France-Presse. Sections of the information displayed on this page (dispatches, photographs, logos) are protected by intellectual property rights owned by Agence France-Presse. As a consequence, you may not copy, reproduce, modify, transmit, publish, display or in any way commercially exploit any of the content of this section without the prior written consent of Agence France-Presse.