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SARS triggered new openness
( 2004-01-02 01:32) (China Daily )

It was the unexpected outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) that landed Mao Qun'an a new mission -- spokesman for the Ministry of Health.

And the new mission has brought lots of changes to his life and work.

"Honestly, being a spokesman is quite new to me; and full of challenge," says the 40-year-old in an exclusive interview with China Daily.

Since last spring, as he grew into his job, most of Mao's spare time has gone into learning how to be a good spokesman.

He certainly has the tools -- Mao graduated in medicine and has been in charge of health-policy research and press releases in the general office of the Ministry of Health for many years.

In the past, a spokesman was someone you saw on television; and the Ministry of Health, along with the majority of central-government departments, had no designated spokesperson, says Mao.

Also, the ministry's information release was passive and unsystematic.

"We can say that our spokesman mechanism was expedited by SARS,"  Mao notes.

To meet the suddenly-increased demand for information, the Ministry of Health designated some officials including Mao to issue epidemic information every afternoon from the end of April.

However, during the SARS period, "we were like announcers making only broadcasts of the latest number of SARS cases, instead of answering questions or revealing other details,"  Mao recalls.

Based on his experience during the SARS period, and for better dissemination of information about administrative affairs and various health news, Mao was appointed the spokesman for the Ministry of Health in July.

He attended a five-day spokesperson training programme -- in which he says he learned a lot -- conducted by the State Council Information Office in September, the first such session for various departments at central and provincial level.

As a spokesman, Mao says, he now pays more attention to news analyses and awareness Backing him up is a team in the information office of the ministry.

"We are now trying to give the public a clearer picture in a timely fashion,"  he adds.

For example, many more details of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in China have been revealed since last July when SARS subsided in the country; and it has helped that the central leadership, including top leaders such as Premier Wen Jiabao, has focused unprecedented attention to the victims of the deadly disease.

As a new mechanism, the spokesperson system faces some difficulties, says Mao.

"Our spokesmen need more training; and an effective information-reporting system must be established or improved to support their work."

Learning from the SARS epidemic, China has established epidemic- and other health-matter reporting system in the past year, which greatly benefits Mao's work.

And the Ministry of Health held a three-day training session in October for more than 100 spokesperson from health authorities at the provincial level, hospitals and disease-control centres.

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