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Hand, foot and mouth in China

14th April 2009

A Chinese health expert has suggested that hand, foot and mouth disease could spread further in China, despite government assurances that all measures were in place to stop the highly contagious disease.

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“We have taken all the necessary measures to control this disease,” Qi Xiaoqiu, director of the Disease Control Bureau at China’s Ministry of Health, said.

“Of course there is a likelihood that there will be further developments, because we are in the most infectious season. And the virus has mutated somewhat in recent years," Qi said in an interview.

Qi also said local health authorities lacked expertise.

“We have to ask why we get this disease occurring in the same place every year. It's not easy to diagnose it at the local level - you need the help of an epidemiologist - and they lack such resources.”

China's health minister dismissed reports in China’s official media of a cover-up but acknowledged problems exist in systems for reporting health threats.

Poor systems

Health Minister Chen Zhu blamed low-quality medical systems for the inability to spot some health threats.

The state-run Xinhua news agency said that officials had reported 41,846 cases of hand, foot and mouth disease, which breaks out early each year in China.

Last year's toll was unusually high, with 128 deaths reported through the first 11 months of 2008.

The health ministry said 94% of those suffering from the disease in this year's outbreak were under three years of age.

“Effective teams need to be dispatched as soon as the disease is detected to confirm exactly what it is, and the source of the infection,” Fang Guodong, an expert who advises the US Food and Drug Administration, said in an interview.

“As soon as you know that, then you must take the appropriate measures immediately to insure that children, who succumb most easily to infection, don't get the opportunity. Third, you need to administer effective treatment to children who are already infected, or whom you suspect may already be infected.”

In a statement, the Heze municipal government in China’s eastern Shandong province said emergency health teams from the Health Ministry in Beijing would be working in more than 600 villages around the city, as hand, foot and mouth disease is most virulent in spring.

The government was taking every possible measure to ensure the disease spread no further, it said.

Symptoms of hand, foot and mouth disease include fever and sores. It can be fatal in children because of their less-developed immune systems.

Lu Jun, an adviser to the non-government health charity Yirenping Center, said the main factor behind the hand, foot and mouth epidemic was a bid by local officials to cover up the extent of the problem.

“Some of the children died because they were left untreated, but the government wouldn't enter their deaths into the official report. There was nothing to be done about it,” he said.

Conflicting pressures

AIDS activist Wan Yanhai said Chinese authorities faced conflicting pressures.

“On the one hand, the government understands that any information regarding infectious diseases should be made openly available, but on the other they are afraid of causing panic,” Wan said.

“Local officials are afraid that such a disease will affect their performance statistics.”

Wan said China still lacked a culture of political accountability for the management of public health threats.

Original reporting by Tang Qiwei for RFA’s Mandarin service. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.

 

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