The Chinese government decided to impose a media blackout on the outbreak of severe acute respiratory illness (Sars) between the appearance of the first cases in November and March, when the spread of the disease in Hong Kong forced it to receive a team from the World Health Organisation. By April 16, the mainland had reported 1,445 cases and 65 deaths.
Officials justified their initial stance by saying they wanted to preserve political stability and maintain economic growth. However, the lack of information only served to raise anxiety and fuel rumours among the local population. Internationally, China's failure to quickly inform international bodies about the outbreak of the virus drew widespread criticism. The Wall Street Journal described the government as 'grossly negligent' for its handling of the issue.
Li Liming, director of China's Centre for Disease Control, apologised for failing to inform the public about the outbreak and spread of the disease. However, other officials were reported by the Washington Post to have been dismissed for releasing unauthorised material about Sars.
The World Health Organisation's director general Gro Harlem Brundtland said it would have been "definitely helpful" if international expertise and the WHO had been able to help in China at an early stage. The country had not done enough "surveillance, reporting, tracing and investigation" of Sars, said Jim Palmer, a spokesman for the United Nations health agency.