Doctors in China struggled to contain the spread of an intestinal virus that has infected more than 3,300 children, killing 21 of them so far, state press reported yesterday.
The latest death occurred in the city of Fuyang in Anhui Province, the epicenter of the epidemic with 2,946 children infected there as of yesterday, Xinhua news agency reported, citing local health officials.
The number of children in Anhui infected with the enterovirus 71, known as EV71, has risen by nearly 500 since Wednesday, the report said.
Up to 340 children have been infected in central Hubei Province and five others are sick in the city of Hangzhou in eastern Zhejiang Province, Xinhua reported.
Sixteen children have also fallen ill in Henan Province, which borders Anhui.
EV71, which causes hand, foot and mouth disease, is highly contagious and is spread through direct contact with the mucus, saliva, or feces of an infected person. Young children are most susceptible because of lower immune systems.
The disease begins with fever, blisters, mouth ulcers and rashes, and has spread in Anhui since early March amid accusations by the Chinese media of a government-led cover-up of the epidemic.
Most of those stricken are under the age of six, with 879 children currently being treated in Fuyang hospitals, nine of whom are in critical condition, the report said. Forty others were in serious condition.
News of the epidemic only surfaced on Monday, when it was reported that 19 children had died.
State television showed video footage of parents from rural areas of Anhui bringing their toddlers to overcrowded hospitals in Fuyang.
Health officials warned that although older people may not show symptoms of the disease, they could be carriers of the virus and could infect others, the report said.
“Fuyang City is strengthening medical emergency treatment and prevention and control measures in every way possible,” Xinhua said, noting that treatment facilities would be expanded.
The WHO earlier this week expressed concern over the epidemic, which in serious cases can lead to brain, heart and lung damage.
It said in a statement on Wednesday that while enteroviruses are found across the world, “the situation [in Anhui] is still of concern especially because of the current high reported case fatality rate compared [with] previous years.”
The Chinese health ministry has tried to calm fears, saying early discovery of the disease and better treatment has lowered the mortality rate, but has warned that the disease was likely to spread.
“We estimate that the hand, foot and mouth disease [caused by EV71] in Fuyang City will still continue for some time, the number of cases will continue to increase, and serious and fatal cases might still continue to happen,” the ministry said on Wednesday.