China's official swine flu death toll has tripled in the past two weeks after the government ordered more accurate reporting of fatalities amid suspicions of a cover-up.
A statement posted on the health ministry's website late Tuesday said the number of people reported killed by the influenza A(H1N1) virus had jumped to 178 at the weekend, up from a previously reported nationwide tally of 53.
The statement gave no reason for the sharp increase but it comes after the ministry on November 19 ordered more transparent reporting following comments by a renowned medical whistleblower who questioned official tallies.
The statement noted that "the number of severe cases and deaths continues to rise."
"The epidemic situation in our nation remains grim," it said.
Despite reporting tens of thousands of confirmed A(H1N1) cases in China since the virus first emerged this spring in North America, the reported death rate here has remained far below that of other countries.
Cover-up suspicions were fuelled last month when medical expert Zhong Nanshan was quoted by a Chinese newspaper saying he suspected authorities in some areas were under-reporting fatalities to convince superiors they were containing the virus.
Zhong's opinion carries weight after he earned wide respect in 2003 for defying the official line on the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak to help reveal the true extent of the illness.
The government had initially tried to hide the SARS outbreak and only owned up after it began to spill over into other countries.
The health ministry order for better reporting came shortly after Zhong's comments were published.
Chinese officials including Health Minister Chen Zhu have warned repeatedly in recent months that China was likely to see a sharp increase in overall cases of swine flu and deaths during the winter, when flu is most virulent.
Tuesday's health ministry statistical statement said more than 91,000 people had been confirmed to have contracted the virus in China, the vast majority of whom had already recovered.