The death toll in a pig-borne disease in southwestern China rose to 31 on Friday as health officials stepped up preventative measures and tried to reassure the public the government had the epidemic under control.

The disease, blamed on the bacteria streptococcus suis, has swept through dozens of villages in Sichuan province since June, infecting farmers who handled or butchered sick pigs.

So far, 152 confirmed and suspected cases have been found, with 27 people hospitalized in critical condition, according to the Ministry of Health's Web site. Seven patients have been released from the hospital.

Among 27 newly confirmed cases, only six fell ill Thursday, while the rest showed symptoms for several days, the ministry said. They include, fever, nausea, vomiting, bleeding under the skin and, in some cases, meningitis.

"The epidemic is at present under control," the official Xinhua News Agency (search) said, citing Health Minister Gao Qiang (search), who arrived in Sichuan Thursday to inspect the area.

Gao warned that precautions — a ban on the killing, transporting and selling of sick pigs, timely treatment of infected farmers — still needed to be taken since the source of the outbreak had not been determined. No person-to-person transmissions have been reported.

Jiang Zhuhui, a farmer, said he and his family were "afraid when the disease began to spread" and have stopped eating pork.

"But now, we knew that the disease is not infectious between people. That reassures us," said Jiang in a telephone interview.

China was criticized for being reluctant to release information during its outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome that emerged in the country's south and killed nearly 800 people around the world before subsiding in July 2003.

The latest epidemic prompted fears that SARS (search) had returned. China is also trying to contain an outbreak of bird flu in its northwest, where thousands of migratory birds have died.

At least 50,000 health workers have been sent to nearly 1.4 million farming households to register every pig in the region, the China Daily reported.

Officials in the city of Ziyang, where many farmers in surrounding areas have been infected, have issued more than 2 million posters urging farmers not to slaughter or eat sick pigs, another common infection route, the newspaper said.

Temporary roadside quarantine stations have also been set up to stop dead swine from being transported to markets, it said.

Doctors were still trying to find a drug to treat the disease. They have so far been relying on heavy doses of antibiotics.