China puts nation on alert to try to stop deadly virus
By CHARLES HUTZLER
Associated Press Writer
May 3, 8:12 AM EDT

BEIJING (AP) -- China's Health Ministry issued a nationwide alert Saturday calling for heightened efforts to control a virus that has caused the deaths of 22 children in one city and shows signs of spreading.

Health bureaus around the country must step up monitoring for hand, foot and mouth disease following a "relatively large" outbreak in the central city of Fuyang, the Health Ministry said in notices on its Web site.

The ministry warned that cases were more numerous this year than in recent years, and the peak for transmission would likely come in June and July.

The outbreak is another concern for China's communist government as it gears up to welcome hundreds of thousands of foreigners for this summer's Beijing Olympics. It's also an uncomfortable reminder of the SARS pneumonia outbreak in 2003, which Beijing tried to cover up but then adopted drastic measures to control.

Saturday's warning was prompted by a jump in cases in Fuyang of Enterovirus 71, or EV-71, a type of hand, foot and mouth disease.

Up to Thursday night, 3,321 cases of EV-71 were reported in Fuyang, a fast-growing city in largely rural Anhui province. Besides the 22 deaths, 978 people remain hospitalized, 58 of them in serious or critical condition, the ministry said in a separate statement.

The state-run Xinhua News Agency also reported that preliminary tests showed an 18-month-old boy who died Friday in southeastern Guangdong province was infected with EV-71, and a second suspected death was under investigation. Cases of hand, foot and mouth outbreaks, but not necessarily EV-71, have been reported in at least two other provinces.

"Health bureaus at all levels must recognize the importance and urgency of preventing the spread of infectious diseases," the ministry said in its nationwide order.

Enterovirus 71 is one of several viruses that cause hand, foot and mouth disease, which is characterized by fever, mouth sores and a rash with blisters. It is spread by direct contact with nose and throat discharges, saliva, fluid from blisters, or the stool of infected persons.

The illness mainly strikes children young than 10 and is not related to foot and mouth disease, which infects cattle, sheep and swine.

The nationwide order said preventing the spread of infectious diseases was necessary "to guarantee the smooth staging of the Beijing Olympics and Paralympics and to practically preserve social stability."

The order targeted hand, foot and mouth disease, as well as hepatitis A, measles and other infectious diseases commonly spread in the spring and summer.

Mindful of the SARS experience, the order vowed to punish any person or agency who tried to cover-up or delay disclosure of outbreaks.

State media cited the SARS experience in reports this past week that said people in Fuyang had criticized the government's response as slow, allowing rumors to spread about the outbreak.

A press officer with the World Health Organization said representatives were not available for comment on Saturday. The WHO in a statement on Thursday said that while cases in Fuyang cropped up in early March, they increased sharply starting April 19 but a rapid response from China also steeply decreased the rate of fatalities in the second half of April.

With no vaccine or specific therapy developed for EV-71, the WHO recommended better hygiene, with more frequent hand-washing and disinfecting areas - something that it said China was doing.

State-run television footage showed workers spraying disinfectant around houses in rural areas outside Fuyang and medical teams visiting families with small children.

Since the SARS crisis, the government has increased spending on the detection and monitoring of communicable diseases. The Health Ministry has ordered regular reports on outbreaks of hand, foot and mouth diseases and has sent expert teams to Anhui province to lead treatment and prevention.


Original article: Talk-Radio 570 KLIF - AP
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