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. Beijing latest victim of China virus outbreak: state media

by Staff Writers
Beijing (AFP) May 5, 2008
A deadly viral outbreak that preys on children has appeared in Olympic host city Beijing, and the number of infections in China has grown to more than 9,000, state media reported Monday.

The latest reported death occurred in eastern Zhejiang province, where a person died of hand, foot and mouth disease, the state-run Zhejiang Online news site said, without giving further details. The official Xinhua news agency later identified the victim as a 5-year-old boy in Wenzhou city.

Enterovirus 71, or EV71, has also been blamed for the deaths of 22 children in neighbouring Anhui province and three children in southern Guangdong province.

EV71, which can cause hand, foot and mouth disease, is highly contagious and spreads through direct contact with the mucus, saliva or faeces of an infected person. Young children are most susceptible because of lower immune systems.

The outbreak caused the Ministry of Health to declare a national alert over the weekend and establish a task force headed by Health Minister Chen Zhu to liaise with local-level health officials on control efforts.

But Xinhua said reported cases of hand, foot and mouth disease continued to mount, hitting 9,251 as of Monday.

The government has not previously announced a nationwide tally of overall cases, and a health ministry spokesman declined comment on the number when contacted by AFP.

Beijing city health officials on Monday said the number of cases in the capital had reached 1,482 as of the day before, jumping from 1,010 five days earlier, the Beijing Evening News reported.

It quoted officials as saying the cases in the city of 17 million were unrelated to those elsewhere in China, and that the numbers did not appear abnormal for this time of year for hand, foot and mouth -- a common disease in China.

However, they said city health authorities were on alert for signs of an outbreak and might "suggest" that schools and day-care centres close if the situation worsens, the paper said.

The eastern province of Anhui has been the worst hit, with the number of children infected there rising to more than 5,151 after the addition of 622 cases on Sunday, state media said.

In the city of Fuyang in Anhui, where some of the earliest cases were reported, kindergartens that were closed last week remained shut on Monday, Xinhua reported.

Dozens of other EV71 cases have been confirmed in several other Chinese provinces, reports have said.

The disease -- which begins with fever, blisters, mouth ulcers and rashes -- has spread in Anhui since early March, but the first reports about the epidemic only surfaced last week on Xinhua.

The World Health Organisation's China representative, Hans Troedsson, on Sunday dismissed claims by Chinese media that local authorities in Anhui had tried to cover up the initial stages of the outbreak.

Troedsson told reporters the delay in the reporting at the provincial level was due to confusion over what was causing the different cases and said he saw no health risk for the Olympics.

"I don't see it at all as a threat for the Olympics or any other event," he said, although he added it was still not clear what would happen next.

"The concern would be if we saw a continuous peak of the disease. At the same time, where I am cautiously positive is that we now know what is causing this outbreak, and that the government has taken action."

York Chow, the secretary for food and health in Hong Kong, which is near Guangdong, told reporters on Monday he was "very concerned" about the situation and authorities would be closely monitoring any new cases.

"So far, the situation is not serious, but we can foresee that the incidence might climb up in the weeks ahead (as weather gets warmer)," he said.

There have been 10 confirmed cases of the virus in Hong Kong since the start of the year, including one that led to the closure of a city kindergarten, the Centre for Health Protection said.

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