Tally skyrockets in tainted milk scandal

The number of children affected by milk tainted with industrial chemical melamine is close to 300,000 - up from the original figure of 53,000 in September. Six babies are known to have died from drinking toxic milk.


AFP - China has dramatically raised the tally of children sickened by dairy products laced with the industrial chemical melamine to 294,000, and said six babies may have died from drinking toxic milk.

In a late-night statement on Monday, the health ministry's new tally of children who suffered kidney-related problems was nearly six times its original figure of 53,000 given in late September.

The statement said six deaths since September may have been caused by consumption of the tainted dairy products. That compares to a previous confirmed death toll of three infants.

However the ministry indicated that virtually all of those who fell ill were no longer in need of medical care and said the worst of the crisis was over.

"Through the intense efforts of health ministry departments, medical organs and masses of medical personnel over the past two months, the peak has passed," it said.

Melamine is a chemical normally used to make plastics but it emerged in September that it had been routinely mixed into watered-down Chinese milk and dairy products to give the impression of higher protein content.

Melamine can cause kidney stones if taken in excessive levels and babies who were fed tainted milk powder suffered the worst because they consumed so much of the chemical.

The ministry said the 294,000 children who fell ill had suffered from urinary tract problems and that 51,900 of them had been admitted to hospital for treatment.

A total of 861 children remained in hospital, according to the ministry. It said that 154 children had been, or are, in a serious condition.

A ministry spokeswoman said Tuesday the lives of the 154 children were no longer in danger but could not give any more specific details about their conditions.

The central government previously said three babies had died of kidney failure from consuming tainted milk powder, while a regional authority also reported one death.

The health ministry spokeswoman confirmed to AFP on Tuesday that the six potential deaths included the three confirmed earlier.

A China-based Western expert on health issues said the updated statistics were not a surprise, as it was long suspected the number of children impacted was higher than the original figure.

"There is an adjustment on a large scale but these numbers reflect the size of China," said the expert, who asked to remain anonymous.

The scandal became a global issue when the news broke in September, with Chinese dairy products around the world recalled or banned after they were found to be tainted with melamine.

No melamine-related deaths have been reported overseas and the government has taken a range of high-profile measures to fix the problem but confidence in Chinese dairy products overseas remains extremely low.

The state-run China Daily reported on Tuesday that Chinese dairy exports had come to a near standstill, just when the industry was normally enjoying its busiest time of the year.

Premier Wen Jiabao and other Chinese leaders have repeatedly sought to reassure the world about the safety of Chinese food exports.

However it remains unclear just how much of China's food is contaminated with melamine and other dangerous substances.

In emerged in October that some Chinese eggs also had traces of melamine, after the chemical was added to chicken feed to give the appearance of higher protein content.

The discovery raised concerns it could be in many other Chinese foods, with the suspicion that it may have been mixed into other livestock feed.

Other Chinese foods have come under scrutiny for safety issues in recent years.

Dumplings laced with pesticide have been discovered in Japan, while the Chinese and international media have reported on problems such as fish being fed antibiotics so they can survive in polluted water.

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