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China issues alert on deadly virus

The disease that has killed 24 children has spread beyond the site of the first outbreak.

May 04, 2008|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — The Chinese Health Ministry issued an alert Saturday over a virus that has killed 24 children and sickened more than 4,000, as it scrambled to fend off a potential scandal over a coverup.

The latest victim of enterovirus-71 was an 18-month-old boy who died Friday in southern Guangdong province. A child who died April 25 in Guangdong also tested positive, the official New China News Agency said. The deaths were the first outside the Anhui province city of Fuyang, 700 miles to the north.

The virus also broke out in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Vietnam, but no deaths have been reported there.

The virus is a summer perennial in Asia, but the outbreak this year appears to be larger than usual. Because the disease usually peaks in June and July, more deaths are expected.

Kindergartens in Fuyang have been ordered closed until mid-May, and residents described an atmosphere of panic. The Liaoshen Evening News carried a large headline reading, "Death," next to a photo of a health inspection van parked in front of a kindergarten.

"There are noticeably very few children or infants on the street," said a 24-year-old Fuyang student who asked not to be identified. "Even some adults are afraid to step out."

Health officials were quoted on state television Friday saying that as part of the nationwide alert, they would send doctors out in search of patients rather than waiting for them to go to a hospital.

The outbreak comes at a sensitive time for China, which is preparing for the Olympic Games, scheduled to open here Aug. 8. Memories are fresh from the 2003 epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in which China's reputation suffered from charges of a coverup.

In this latest case, parents in Fuyang have accused local health officials of lying about the disease. At a news conference, Fuyang officials acknowledged only "several deaths" and implied that the disease was not contagious. At one kindergarten where a child died, staff members reportedly were told that they would be fired if they leaked news of the death.

"The municipal government used lies to dispel rumors and ordered the departments concerned to shut up," an editorial in the Beijing News said.

Enterovirus-71 has been called the "children's SARS" because most of those who died were younger than 2.

The Health Ministry says it is a common childhood illness.

"You can't talk about EV- 71 and SARS in the same breath. SARS was a new infectious disease, and anyone could be infected. SARS was also very deadly," Yang Weizhong, deputy chief of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said last week on a webcast posted on the government website.

Enterovirus-71 is characterized by a fever, sores in the mouth and blistery rashes. Sometimes known as hand, foot and mouth disease, it is not related to the similarly named disease that afflicts cattle.

Most cases are not fatal, and the contagion can usually be controlled by hand-washing and improved hygiene, according to a notice the World Health Organization posted Thursday about the outbreak in China. The agency said "it is not necessary to restrict travel or trade."

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barbara.demick@latimes.com

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Gao Wenhuan in The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report. The Associated Press was used in compiling it.

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