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BEIJING, April 4 (Reuters) - China will swiftly communicate to the outside world and its own people details of a new strain of deadly bird flu, the health ministry said, following complaints it had been too slow to report on the outbreak and suspicion of a SARS-like cover-up.
A total of nine people in China have been confirmed to have contracted the new bird flu strain, H7N9, all in the east of the country. Three infected people have died.
Chinese internet users and some newspapers have questioned why it took so long for the government to announce the new cases, especially as two of the victims first fell ill in February. The government has said it needed time to correctly identify the virus.
In 2003, authorities initially tried to cover up an epidemic of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which emerged in China and killed about a 10th of the 8,000 people it infected worldwide.
In a statement issued late on Wednesday, China's National Health and Family Planning Commission said it was mobilising resources nationwide to fight the outbreak, and would be open and transparent.
"Maintain regular communications about the virus and preventative work with agricultural and forestry authorities in a timely manner, and report to the World Health Organisation, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau and the world," it said in a statement on its website (www.moh.gov.cn).
"Report on the virus in a timely way to the population and spread scientific knowledge via experts and issuing question and answer (statements)," the ministry added.
China has a chequered record when it comes to tackling disease outbreaks, which some officials have previously sought to cover up, fearing attracting unwanted attention from the central government.
While the official Xinhua news agency said it was unfair to compare SARS with H7N9, as the new bird flu virus has yet to show signs of human-to-human transmission, it did warn the government's credibility was on the line.
"If there is anything that SARS has taught China and its government, it's that one cannot be too careful or too honest when it comes to deadly pandemics. The last 10 years have taught the government a lot, but it is far from enough," it said in a commentary.
The World Health Organization said it was "following the event closely" and was in contact with Chinese authorities, which it said were actively investigating the cases amid heightened disease surveillance.
Flu experts in laboratories across the world are picking through the DNA sequence data of samples isolated from the patients to assess its pandemic potential.
In Hong Kong, authorities said they were stepping up monitoring but assured the public that the live chickens imported from the mainland were safe.
"We have a registration system for all farms on the mainland which supply live chickens to Hong Kong," said Secretary for Food and Health Ko Wing-man, according to the South China Morning Post.
"If there's any bird flu outbreak at the farm or at any place within 13 kilometres (eight miles) of the farm, we'll stop imports from that particular chicken farm."
China has yet to find any animals infected with H7N9. (Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Clare Baldwin in HONG KONG; Editing by Michael Perry)