Child virus death toll hits 28; WHO backs China's controls

Beijing - The death toll from a virally transmitted hand-foot-mouth disease (HFMD) that has infected 16,000 children rose to 28 on Wednesday as the World Health Organization said it was satisfied with China's efforts to curb the spread of the virus.

"China has the capacity, both at the central and local level, to control this disease," Hans Troedsson, the WHO representative in China, told reporters.

Troedsson said Chinese health ministry measures to improve surveillance, raise public awareness and educate health workers were "already starting to have effect".

HFMD is a common childhood disease that causes symptoms including ulcers and blisters in the mouth, rashes on the hands and feet and fever.

It is spread mainly by enterovirus or EV71, which is from the same family as the polio virus, but it can also be transmitted by several other viruses.

Troedsson said there was no indication that the enterovirus had mutated into a more virulent strain in China.

The sudden reporting of thousands of cases and the increase in deaths this year appeared to be due to a delay in identifying the initial outbreak, he said at a joint press conference with Chinese health officials.

"Research has not shown that this outbreak has any different features from the previous outbreaks," health ministry spokesman Ma Qun'an said.

"Experts believe this year's peak has come earlier than in previous years," Ma said.

China recorded more than 80,000 HFMD cases and 17 deaths in 2007, the ministry said.

"Last year HFMD was not a notifiable disease so the data may not be accurate," Ma said of the 2007 figures.

Ninety per cent of infections recorded this year were in children under five, he said.

The worst-hit area, Fuyang city in the eastern province of Anhui, recorded 5,840 infections, including 689 new cases reported on Sunday.

At least 22 children died in Fuyang since March 20 and 1,314 remained hospitalized, state media said on Tuesday

About 1,500 infections were reported in Beijing but Ma said the potential spread of the disease was unlikely to influence the Beijing Olympics in August.

The WHO said last week that Chinese health authorities were expecting more deaths and believed the virus would peak in June or July.

HFMD mainly affects infants and young children and is life- threatening in a small number of cases owing to complications such as lung haemorrhage and meningitis.

It has also infected more than 3,000 children in Vietnam since the start of the year, killing at least 10, Vietnamese health officials said Wednesday. (dpa)