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Last Updated: Wednesday, 27 July 2005, 11:00 GMT 12:00 UK
Deaths rise from Chinese disease
By Nick Mackie
Chongqing, China

A patient at the Ziyang First People's Hospital on July 26, 2005
Symptoms include high fevers and internal bleeding
The death toll from the swine bacterium streptococcus suis has risen to 24 from a total of 117 people infected.

Another 21 patients are in a critical condition, suffering high fevers and internal bleeding.

There are still no specific drugs to treat the disease, which officials believe infected people after they ate or handled contaminated pigs.

Doctors are relying on high doses of antibiotics to treat the victims, who come from 40 townships in east Sichuan.

The area has a population of seven million, in a 100km- (62 mile-) belt stretching from the cities of Ziyang to Neijiang.

More than 450 pigs infected with streptococcus suis have now been burned in the area.

Fifty checkpoints are in place to prevent swine from being moved around.

Investigators suggest the infected pigs came from 300 small farms with poor sanitary conditions.

Streptococcus suis causes meningitis and pneumonia in swine. The bacterium survives in faeces, dust and carcasses - common features in Sichuan's poor rural communities.

Worryingly, flies can carry the disease up to two miles and it can survive up to five days.

Transfer to humans is rare - which makes the Sichuan mortality rate alarming.

Also of concern is the authorities' silence on the deaths. It knew of the first cases on 24 June but it only allowed the story out on 25 July.

In addition, this province is China's largest pig centre, producing over 50m swine annually.

But it took over three weeks to identify the pig disease.

The Sichuan government stresses larger breeding farms are not infected, and that pig meat bound for the market place is safe.

In the affected region, billboards still boast that this is a national model of a disease-free zone.

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