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Encephalitis Outbreak Kills 18 in Southern China - 2003-06-20

An outbreak of Japanese encephalitis in southern China has infected more than 200 people, killing 18 of them. The wave of infection is hitting Guangdong, the Chinese province that spawned the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome virus, and is prompting deep concern in neighboring areas.

Worried Hong Kong officials quickly called meetings across the border with their Guangdong provincial counterparts, seeking detailed information on the encephalitis outbreak.

After what many health experts say was a cover-up of the initial outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, they are urging China to make its disease reporting system faster and more accurate. The experts also say poor reporting contributed to the rapid spread of SARS to Hong Kong and the rest of the world.

SARS originated in Guangdong and infected more than 8,000 people around the world, killing a tenth of them. SARS hammered Hong Kong, leaving nearly 300 people dead and segments of its economy in shambles.

In Beijing, World Health Organization spokesman Bob Dietz said he understands the nervousness of people in Hong Kong, who are still recovering from the SARS ordeal. But he says Japanese encephalitis, unlike SARS, is well known to scientists and doctors. "Encephalitis appears every year at this time in China and this time does not seem to be any different. It is endemic to the region, there is a vaccine to prevent it but there is no cure for the disease and it's a nasty disease that hits young people a lot," he said.

Encephalitis can kill up to 30 percent of its victims, but Mr. Dietz said the death rate in China is often below 10 percent. In most years about 40,000 people across Asia are infected and some 10,000 of them, mostly children, die.

Provincial health officials are now scrambling to vaccinate all of Guangdong's children, inoculating 100,000 of them just last week. They also plan a new campaign to get rid of the mosquitoes that carry the deadly disease.

Encephalitis involves an inflammation of the brain and spinal cord and usually breaks out in rural rice growing or pig farming areas. Unlike SARS, it is not spread through human contact.