China’s Health Ministry said six babies may have died after consuming tainted milk powder, up from a previous official toll of three, and announced a six-fold increase in its tally of infants sickened in the scandal to nearly 300,000.
It was the first time since Sept. 21 that health authorities have revised the total number of babies sickened by milk powder adulterated with the industrial chemical melamine. The previous total was about 50,000.
The crisis has been met with public dismay and anger, particularly among parents who feel the government breached their trust after their children were sickened or died from drinking infant formula authorities had certified as safe.
The latest statistics show that Chinese leaders are slowly acknowledging the breadth of China’s worst food safety scare in years. During such crises, the government often deliberately releases information piecemeal in part to keep from feeding public anger.
The ministry said in a statement late on Monday that 294,000 babies across the country had suffered from urinary problems after consuming milk powder laced with melamine.
“Most of the sickened children received outpatient treatment only for small amounts of sand-like kidney stones found in their urinary systems, while some patients had to be hospitalized for the illness,” the statement said.
Thousands of parents have been clamoring for compensation for their sickened and dead children. The release of the figures raises the question of whether the Health Ministry is getting closer to finalizing a compensation scheme.
Six babies had possibly died, the statement said, with four of the cases recorded in the provinces of Jiangxi, Zhejiang, Guizhou and Shaanxi, and the other two in Gansu Province.
There are other families who say their children died from drinking milk powder made by Sanlu, the dairy at the center of the crisis, but their cases were apparently still uncounted. These include cases in Henan, Shaanxi and in Xinjiang Province.
“When the county health bureau first came to us, they said my child died because of the milk powder,” said apple farmer Tian Xiaowei of Shaanxi Province, whose year-old boy died in August. “But later when the case was reported to the district health authority, they said there’s no proof that the death was linked with milk powder.”
In Henan, Li Shenyi, the uncle of a 9-month-old girl who died of kidney failure in September, also said he had not been contacted by local health authorities on whether the child’s death has been classified as caused by tainted formula.
Without the official verdict, families fear they will be refused compensation promised by the government through the Health Ministry, which has also said it would provide free medical treatment for children sickened by tainted milk.
“I’ve talked with a lawyer and at first we wanted lots of compensation, but later we agreed to settle for a much smaller amount, although I wasn’t happy. But now even that seems impossible as nobody has ever talked to us about compensation,” Tian said.
A Beijing lawyer who has provided legal assistance to families of children who became ill said there was still no word of compensation. He added there were likely even more deaths that had not been counted yet.
“I assume that the government is worried about the situation of the dairies and is afraid the companies may fall if they have to pay for the compensation amid the current financial crisis,” Chang Boyang said. “I believe there may be more deaths because some of the parents might not even report the cases to the government.”
The ministry said it investigated 11 possible deaths related to melamine-tainted milk and ruled five of them out.
It did not give further details nor say whether the three earlier reported deaths were included in the new total.
The ministry said it checked into babies who died before Sept. 10, and that between then and last Thursday, no new deaths were reported.
By last Thursday, 861 babies were still hospitalized with kidney problems caused by contaminated milk.
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