China ordered authorities across the nation on Saturday to fight hand, foot and mouth disease, after the death of an 18-month-old boy suggested a virus causing the illness had spread from eastern provinces to the south.
The boy died in the southern province of Guangdong from a suspected case of the disease that was apparently caused by the enterovirus 71, or EV71, the official Xinhua news agency quoted health authorities there as saying.
Twenty-two children have died from hand, foot and mouth disease and over 3,000 people have been infected in Fuyang city, in the eastern province of Anhui, since a mass outbreak of the EV71 intestinal virus began spreading there in early March.
"Local Communist Party and government officials are on high alert. Health authorities are urgently taking measures to prevent the disease and treat seriously ill children," the Health Ministry said in a statement.
It said special equipment was being installed in children's wards of hospitals to treat patients. Local authorities were strengthening the supervision of food safety and water quality in an effort to stop the disease from spreading.
Of the 3,321 people infected, 978 were in hospital and 58 were critically ill or in serious condition, the ministry said.
It ordered health authorities across the country to step up monitoring for cases of hand, foot and mouth disease, requiring all cases to be reported within 24 hours.
Officials were told to go to nurseries and primary schools to educate staff there on hygiene and prevention methods. The ministry said Chinese scientists would step up research into the disease.
The virus began spreading in Anhui in early March, but a delay in reporting it to the public until last weekend triggered heated discussion and criticism in the Chinese media, which said local government officials should be sacked.
An initial cover-up of the SARS epidemic in 2003 led to the sacking of Beijing's mayor and the health minister.
But health officials say there was no cover-up and the reason for the delay in this case was because medical teams were trying to work out what the illness was.
Xinhua did not say whether authorities believed EV71 had spread from Anhui to Guangdong, but official Chinese media reported earlier that the virus had spread from Anhui to the neighbouring province of Henan.
Hand, foot, and mouth disease, characterised by fever, sores in the mouth and a rash with blisters, is a common illness among infants and children and is usually not fatal, according to the National Center for Infectious Diseases in the United States.
But the fatal cases in Fuyang involved complications due to infection by EV71, the World Health Organization said on its Website (www.who.int).
The number of hospitalised cases in Fuyang has risen sharply since April 19, and public health experts think cases will keeping rising before peaking around June or July, the WHO said.
There is no vaccine or antiviral agent available to treat or prevent EV71. Enteroviruses spread mostly through contact with infected blisters or faeces and can cause high fever, paralysis and swelling of the brain.