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Chinese officials accused of covering up killer virus

by Staff Writers
Beijing (AFP) April 29, 2008
Local authorities in eastern China tried to cover up an outbreak of a highly contagious virus that has killed 20 children and left more than 1,500 others ill, Chinese press reports said Tuesday.

The China Youth Daily, the official organ of the Communist Youth League, compared the situation in Anhui province to the cover-up by Chinese officials of the SARS crisis in 2003.

"SARS has already taught us the lesson that local officials who neglected their duties, gave false reports... were punished," it said in a report on the Anhui problems.

The first reports of the outbreak of the intestinal virus known as enterovirus 71, or EV71, emerged on Monday, with local Chinese officials quoted as saying 19 children had died and nearly 800 had been infected in Anhui.

By Tuesday, the official Xinhua news agency said the death toll had risen to 20 with another 1,520 children infected. All those infected were reportedly below the age of six, with the majority of them just two years old.

All kindergartens in the city were closed on Tuesday, Xinhua said, as authorities scrambled to contain the virus nearly two months after the first signs of potential major problems.

Hospitals in Fuyang city in Anhui started to admit children in early March with fever, blisters, mouth ulcers or rashes on their hands and feet, all symptoms of the virus, Xinhua said.

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

However Xinhua quoted an infectious disease specialist as saying that there was no need for panic with the latest outbreak, and that most of the children would recover.

"An overwhelming majority of the patients are curable," said Li Xingwang, who is in charge of the expert panel for prevention and treatment of the virus.

"Most of the children could recover after a week's treatment."

In its article, the China Youth Daily said that far scarier than the actual epidemic was the local government's initial denial of rumours about the disease.

"When the terrifying virus had already infected more than 10 unrelated children, the local government denied the rumour," it said.

A local official denied there was any cover-up at his level, saying the incident had been reported to higher authorities.

"The media criticism is wrong, because we reported to our superiors in time and according to regulations," Wan Junfeng, vice director of the Fuyang centre for disease control, told AFP.

"This is a new case, time is needed to find out the cause and what virus it is. And we can only make it public when we are ordered to."

Another newspaper on Tuesday raised cover-up allegations, referring to a similar incident in the same city four years ago, when authorities sought to hide a scandal over low-quality milk powder that killed at least 12 babies.

"What have Fuyang officials amended in the past four years?" a comment piece in the Beijing News asked.

"Just four years on, a tragedy with almost the same plot happens in the same place, and the 'cover-up' methods used by the local government at the beginning of the incident remain the same."

China was widely criticised internationally for its initial cover-up of SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, in 2003.

It appeared to have originated in southern China, then spread globally to infect more than 8,000 people and kill around 800 worldwide, including 349 in China.

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