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Hand, foot, mouth virus kills 18

HAND, foot and mouth disease has killed 18 children and sickened 41,000 people across the country so far this year, China's health ministry said yesterday.

The outbreak appears more widespread than in recent years, based on previously released data, with around twice the number of people infected compared with the same period last year.

The disease typically strikes infants and children, and while occasionally deadly, most of the cases are mild, with children recovering quickly after suffering little more than a fever and rash.

Li Xinwang, a doctor at Beijing's Ditan Hospital, said the peak season for the spread of the virus is usually May through July but that this year's early spike in cases indicates the toll will likely be higher than average.

He attributed the large number of cases early in the year to "dramatic temperature fluctuations" that helped spread the virus.

Vivian Tam, a spokeswoman for the World Health Organization in China, said the apparent jump in cases could be partly due to higher awareness. "One reason the numbers have increased this year is not necessarily because there are more cases, but rather, there is more reporting of cases than before," Tam said.

Health ministry spokesman Deng Haihua did not give comparable figures for other years at yesterday's press conference, making it difficult to accurately compare against previous outbreaks.

The health ministry has said China had about 80,000 hand, foot and mouth cases and 17 deaths in 2007.

Last year the virus sickened 27,000 people in total and killed dozens in the first few months of 2008 before reports of outbreaks subsided in May, according to news reports.

Deng told reporters that 94 percent of all the patients this year were under five years old.

He said officials were stepping up prevention and awareness efforts to deal with the outbreak but that the virus would likely continue to spread.

Henan and Shandong have been the worst-hit provinces so far this year, recording one-fifth of all the nation's cases, Deng said.


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