Page last updated at 10:19 GMT, Saturday, 3 May 2008 11:19 UK

China on alert as virus spreads

A mother with a child undergoing treatment at a hospital in Fuyang city
There is no vaccine available to treat or prevent EV17

China has issued a nationwide health alert in an effort to control the outbreak of a virus which has killed 22 children in the east of the country.

A statement from the health ministry said it was taking urgent measures to prevent the spread of the infection, known as Enterovirus 71 (EV71).

The highly contagious intestinal virus can cause fever, blisters in the mouth and a rash on the hands and feet.

Officials fear the virus has spread from eastern provinces to the south.

"Local Communist Party and government officials are on high alert. Health authorities are urgently taking measures to prevent the disease and treat seriously ill children," the health ministry said in a statement.

Health authorities across the country have been told to report all cases of the virus within 24 hours.

This comes after an 18-month-old boy died in the southern province of Guangdong from a suspected case of the disease, state-run media says.

More than 3,000 children in the eastern provinces of Anhui and Zhejiang are reported to have been infected by the virus.

In extreme cases, the virus can cause brain, heart and lung damage.

Sensitive issue

The outbreak emerged in Fuyang city in March, but was only reported last week.

The delay has led to accusations of a cover-up by local authorities.

The Chinese health ministry has rejected charges that it has failed to handle the situation properly, arguing that medical teams had been trying to work out what the illness was.

The number of children infected with EV71 has risen sharply since the outbreak was disclosed. Public health experts think cases will keep rising before peaking around June or July, the World Health Organisation said.

Most of the victims have been children under the age of six.

Almost 1,000 children are currently receiving hospital treatment, 58 of whom are in a critical or serious condition, the health ministry said.

An official investigation into the cause of the outbreak has been launched, and a prevention and control team has been set up to contain infected areas in the province, local health officials said.

Earlier, the WHO said it was concerned about the number of deaths in the current outbreak, although EV71 has been reported in China before.

The question of reporting infectious diseases is especially sensitive in China, following widespread criticism of the handling of the Sars (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic in 2003.

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