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Meningitis Outbreak Kills 16 in China, Emergency Measures Underway

Emergency measures are underway in China to stop the spread of a potentially deadly infection that already killed at least 16 people in a month. Officials are on high alert for meningitis in the Chinese territory.

The first cases of the latest outbreak of meningitis were reported in China's eastern provinces. A month later, the Chinese Health Ministry says all of its regions - except Tibet, Fujian Province and Hainan Island - have reported outbreaks of the potentially deadly infection.

At least 16 people have died from meningitis since the end of December. More than 250 cases have been reported, that is more than a 50 percent increase in cases for the same period last year.

In response, the Health Ministry this week has ordered local officials to step up prevention and surveillance, provide vaccines to children and be ready to close schools, if necessary.

Meningitis is an infection of the lining around the brain and spinal cord, either caused by bacteria or virus. Symptoms include high fever, nausea, vomiting, stiff neck and severe headaches. It can be transmitted through droplets of respiratory or throat secretions for instance, from coughing, sneezing, or sharing eating and drinking utensils.

Roy Wadia, spokesman for the World Health Organization in Beijing, says meningitis outbreaks are common in China.

"The numbers that we've heard of at this time are not that much higher from the same time one year ago," he said. "And it could also be that the surveillance systems in China have actually become stronger over the past year so you see more cases because the system is actually able to spot them."

In Hong Kong, health authorities are on alert, especially with next week's Lunar New Year festival when millions of people travel to the mainland.

Health Secretary York Chow says the chances of a similar outbreak in Hong Kong is "not very high" at the moment. He adds that mainland officials have been prompt in sharing information about the outbreak.

"I think the communication channel is very adequate," said York Chow. "In fact we were informed yesterday at the same speed as other provinces in China."

In 2003, nearly 300 people in Hong Kong died after Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome spread from the mainland. China was heavily criticized for failing to alert Hong Kong and the international community about the dangers of the new disease.