/ 6 May 2008

Fear of child virus spreads to China’s capital

Fear of a virus that has infected thousands of children gripped parents in China’s capital and financial hub on Tuesday, as the number of cases of hand, foot and mouth disease mounted across the country.

More than 11 900 cases of the virus have been reported in China this year, the official Xinhua news agency said. The virus has caused 26 deaths, largely in Fuyang, a city in China’s eastern province of Anhui.

But parents in northern Beijing, host of the 2008 Olympics that begin in August, were also on the alert.

”Of course we’re worried. If a child got sick, we’d be very frightened,” said one woman, bouncing a toddler on her hip. ”We know about this virus, but we don’t know clearly how to protect ourselves. The information hasn’t been thorough enough.”

Hand, foot and mouth disease is a common illness in children and infants caused by a family of viruses called enteroviruses, and outbreaks regularly occur in China.

But the current outbreak has led to fatalities mostly when the cases have been linked with enterovirus 71, which can cause a severe form of the disease that can lead to high fever, paralysis and viral meningitis.

Beijing has had 4 496 cases of hand, foot and mouth disease this year, mostly in children under five, though it has had no fatalities, the Beijing News reported.

The city’s Centre for Disease Control has advised that any child found with the illness should be isolated at home, and that if more than three children in a single classroom were infected the class should be suspended, the newspaper said.

A doctor from a Beijing children’s hospital declined permission for interviews there, saying it could cause panic.

”Parents are already very nervous, and if they see a camera, they would think that our hospital has such cases and they will take away their children,” the doctor said.

”We are facing great pressure these days,” she added.

Shanghai, China’s financial centre, has reported no cases, but the city government nonetheless ordered kindergartens and primary schools to step up daily monitoring and emphasise more hand-washing and sterilising of furniture and toys.

The World Health Organisation has cautioned that the virus, which spreads mostly through contact with infected blisters or faeces, could be yet to peak.

China, which initially covered up the Sars epidemic in 2003, in a scandal that contributed to its spread and led to the sacking of Beijing’s mayor and health minister, has ordered authorities to aggressively tackle hand, foot and mouth.

An editorial in Monday’s China Daily blamed the crisis in Fuyang on a ”delayed reaction” by the local government.

But at least one Beijing resident said he had confidence in the government’s efforts.

”Before, when Sars hit, that was the scariest time,” said He Xinping, the father of an eight-year-old. ”But now, with Beijing hosting the Olympics, the city is certain to increase its efforts.” — Reuters