China has launched a nationwide inspection of schools amid rising public anger at revelations that many educational institutions secretly gave children medicine to ward off illnesses and boost attendance, state media said on Friday.
No deaths have been reported, but food and drug safety for toddlers is a highly sensitive issue in China after at least six children died and thousands were sickened in 2008 from drinking milk contaminated with melamine, an industrial chemical.
Local governments have been ordered to inspect schools and particularly kindergartens, to check if they were illegally administering any medicine, the official China Daily said, citing a health ministry notice.
A string of reports since last week has revealed that at least six kindergartens in three provinces gave toddlers a cheap antiviral drug without informing their parents.
Some kindergartens are said to have done this for years, in a bid to reduce sick leave and avoid having to pay refunds for the children's absence. The schools get paid based on attendance.
Parents in the central province of Hubei and the northwestern province of Shaanxi have taken to the street to demand a thorough probe and stiff punishment for the offenders.
"We only have one child, and you fed them with a banned drug," read one banner carried by protesters in photographs published on microblogging platform Sina Weibo.
That statement reflects a particular anxiety of many Chinese couples, restricted by strict rules to having only one child.
The government must look into the incidents, tighten management and prevent similar incidents, Premier Li Keqiang said on Wednesday.
More than 1,000 children received the drug in their kindergartens, and many suffered abdominal pains and itchiness among other symptoms that parents fear are side effects of prolonged consumption, state media say.
Police have detained at least 10 people responsible for buying and administering the prescription drug, often used to treat influenza, to healthy children without permission.
Chinese parents' faith in school safety has been eroded by many incidents in recent years, ranging from axe attacks by mentally unstable people to sexual abuse.
Two children died in southwestern Yunnan province after ingesting rat poison, the China Daily said in a separate report on Friday, although it was not clear if the event was deliberate or an accident.
Last year, a 62-year-old school teacher was jailed for molesting seven second-grade girls and infecting six of them with sexually transmitted diseases.