The World Health Organization is concerned a virus outbreak in China may be under-reported, but says a cover-up by officials is not suspected. Twenty four children have died from the disease and Chinese authorities have issued a nation-wide alert to fight the spread. Daniel Schearf reports from Beijing.
The World Health Organization in China says the scope of an outbreak of enterovirus, known as EV71, may be higher than reported.
Chinese health officials say almost 5,000 children have been infected by the hand, foot and mouth disease, most of them in eastern China's Anhui province.
But WHO representative for China Dr. Hans Troedsson told journalists there may be many more cases that were not recognized as EV71 because the symptoms were not obvious. He says under-reporting of the disease is a common problem.
"Children, when they get affected, usually they are having quite mild symptoms and are not severely ill," said Dr. Troedsson. "And they are usually not taken to health facilities. And, if they are not taken to a health care provider, the case will not be reported."
The symptoms include fever, mouth sores, rashes, and blisters. Enterovirus is highly contagious, spread by bodily fluids, and mainly affects just children because of their weaker immune systems.
Initial slow reporting of the outbreak led Chinese media to question whether local officials were covering up infections as they did during the 2003 SARS epidemic.
But Dr. Troesdsson says China's disease surveillance and reporting system has vastly improved since then. He thinks provincial health officials simply misdiagnosed some of cases because the symptoms were more severe.
"They did not know what the cause of these different cases were," he siad. "And, being a physician I understand that fully because it was not a clinical picture of a hand, foot, and mouth disease. Because, in the absence of blisters and rashes, that is not the first thing you would think of."
Troesdsson says Chinese authorities are taking the right steps by increasing surveillance and reporting of suspected cases. He says they have now classified the virus a "class-C disease", making it required to report infections within 24 hours.
Health officials recommend quarantining those suspected of having infections and increasing common hygiene such as washing hands to prevent the spread of the disease.
There is no known vaccine or treatment for EV71, but it has a very low fatality rate and most children recover in about 10 days.
The disease is quite common in Asia where outbreaks occur every year. Nonetheless, Troesdsson says the region is affected more often by the virus, making more research necessary.