05/05/2008, 00.00
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Threat of epidemic: thousands infected, strict controls on Chinese schools and child care centres

There is no known cure for the entovirus 71, and efforts are underway to prevent contagion among small children, the hardest-hit age group, with 26 deaths already. The virus has spread widely in various provinces. The World Health Organisation rules out "dangers" for the Olympics, but there is controversy over the delay in the release of the news.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) - The number of children killed has risen to 26, in the epidemic of the entovirus 71 (EV71), which from Anhui (22 deaths in Fuyang) has extended into Guangdong (three deaths, including two children under the age of 2 in Foshan), Zhejiang (one death),  Hubei, Shandong, Jiangxi, and Henan. The rapidity of the contagion and the lack of news on the illness, together with the delay in acknowledging the epidemic, is prompting many to fear a true health emergency, even if the World Health Organisation (WHO) says there are no dangers for the Olympics. Meanwhile, a national alarm has been raised: many kindergartens have been closed, and there are strict controls on primary schools and child care centres.

According to the state news agency Xinhua, more than 5,000 cases of the disease were certified in Anhui alone two days ago, but hundreds of cases have been noted in other provinces, and results are awaited from tests on many children who are displaying the typical symptoms (pains in the hands, feet, and mouth; fever; sore throat; rash with blisters). It is highly contagious through skin contact or contact with the secretions of a sick person, and it strikes small children (especially under the age of two) who have weaker immune defences: in some child care centres, there have been dozens of cases in a few days.  It can cause damage to the brain, lungs, and heart.  The virus spread in early March, but the authorities acknowledged the epidemic only on April 27, after thousands of cases and numerous deaths.

Hans Troedsson, representative of the WHO in China, today ruled out "any threat to the Olympics", especially because the epidemic is striking mainly small children, and he maintains that it could die out before August.  But he has also acknowledged that "more study is necessary to understand the virus better".

What is worrying, in addition to the rapid propagation of the epidemic, is precisely the current lack of news on the virus, almost two months after it emerged, together with the silence maintained by the authorities up until last week.  Memories are still strong of the SARS epidemic in 2003, which struck 5,300 people in China, with more than 340 deaths.  There are no known vaccines or anti-viral medicines to prevent or cure EV71.  This virus has repeatedly appeared in the Asia-Pacific region (in 1998 in Taiwan, there were more than 80 deaths), but the great majority of cases are not lethal (the WHO maintained that these deaths are caused by a pulmonary edema following infection).  Verification is being awaited to determine if the virus has mutated into a new strain.

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