Health Scare Causes New Headache for China

Patrick Goodenough | International Editor | Monday, May 5, 2008

Health Scare Causes New Headache for China

( - With three months to go before the Olympic Games opens in Beijing, China faces a new and unexpected worry, with the outbreak of a contagious virus that has killed at least 24 children and infected more than 5,000.

At the weekend, China's Health Ministry issued a nationwide alert urging local health authorities to impose disease prevention and control efforts ahead of the Olympics. He said that any concealment or failure to report cases would be punished.

The ministry said a high-level taskforce headed by Health Minister Chen Zhu had been set up to curb the spread of hand, foot and mouth disease, caused by an enterovirus known as EV71.

"Local [Communist] Party and government officials are on high alert," it said. "The authorities are taking urgent measures to prevent the disease and speed up treatment."

The U.N. World Health Organization's epidemic and pandemic alert and response division says public health experts expect the outbreak to peak in June or July. The Olympic Games open on August 8.

The head of the WHO China office said Sunday there was no reason to believe the latest outbreak of hand, foot and mouth disease would affect the Olympics. Dr. Hans Troedsson noted that the disease affected mostly young children.

Cases have been reported in 15 cities in Anhui province in central China, and in recent days also in southern Guangdong province, where a two-year old boy was the latest to die on Sunday.

The Chinese government has been criticized in the past for reacting slowly and secretively when faced with serious health crises. But the WHO is not making such an allegation this time.

Although the Chinese public was first notified only weeks after the first death occurred, WHO China representative Troedsson told a news conference that the delay in making the news public was caused by difficulties in diagnosing the cause of the deaths.

Troedsson said under-reporting of EV71 was a common problem as symptoms are not always obvious.

Symptoms of hand, foot and mouth disease - which is not related to foot and mouth disease in animals - can include mouth sores, skin rashes and slight fever. The virus is spread by bodily fluids, and affects mainly children under the age of 10 because of lower immunity levels.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, outbreaks in childcare facilities commonly occur in summer and fall.

There is no vaccine and no effective antiviral treatment infections, and a leading doctor in Anhui province told the China Daily newspaper treatment generally focuses on preventing complications.

Hand, foot and mouth disease is not usually serious, although fatal outbreaks attributed to EV71 were reported in Malaysia and Taiwan in the late 1990s.

The Chinese government has now classified the virus as a special class of disease that requires the reporting of infections within 24 hours.

The health ministry said local health departments are to publicize emergency information. Officials are advising disinfection and frequent hand washing and schools and daycare centers in badly-affected areas will also be closed.

The outbreak is the latest headache facing the Chinese authorities in the run up to the summer Olympics.

China's human rights record and policies in Tibet and elsewhere have prompted numerous protests, a decision by movie director Steven Spielberg to step down as artistic director for the opening and closing ceremonies, and a campaign calling on world leaders to boycott the opening.

The authorities have also had to deal with food safety concerns and criticism over pollution in Beijing, with several high-profile athletes raising the possibility of pulling out because of worries about air quality.

In 2003, China was widely criticized over its handling of SARS, a flu-like disease that originated in southern China but was played down by officials for months. The virus subsequently spread across Asia, killing almost 800 people and causing severe damage to the region's tourism industry.

The following year, the WHO again reprimanded China, saying it had responded too slowly to the emergence of the avian flu virus known as H5N1.

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