China announced Wednesday new rules that require health care providers to report all cases of a viral illness that has killed 28 children and sickened thousands in outbreaks across the country.
There have been 15,799 cases of hand, foot and mouth disease this year, the official Xinhua News Agency said, cropping up in areas ranging from the tropical island province of Hainan in the south to Jilin province in the northeast and Yunnan province in the southwest.
The number and scope of cases in recent years, along with the need for increased surveillance, prompted the Health Ministry to enforce the new reporting rules, spokesman Mao Qun'an said.
"This demonstrates our commitment to people's health," Mao said at a rare news conference held jointly with the World Health Organization.
Under the mandate which took effect Tuesday, health care providers need to report cases to the ministry within 24 hours.
The outbreaks are the latest headache for authorities as they gear up for the Beijing Olympics. Preparations have already been upset by unrest in Tibet and protests during the global torch run.
Mao insisted there would not be any impact on the games, which begin Aug. 8. Already embassies and foreign schools have sent out notices urging vigilance against the illness.
Hand, foot and mouth disease is a common childhood illness that spreads through contact with saliva, feces, fluid secreted from blisters or mucus from the nose and throat. There is no vaccine or specific treatment, but most children typically recover quickly. It is unrelated to the foot and mouth disease that affects livestock.
The increasing number of cases brings up parallels with the Communist leadership's handling of previous infectious outbreaks, especially the SARS epidemic of 2003.
Government attempts to conceal the emergence of severe acute respiratory syndrome — a new disease at the time — contributed to its spread, ultimately causing 774 deaths worldwide and forcing Beijing to apologize amid international criticism.
Both Mao and WHO China representative Hans Troedsson said they expected more cases of hand, foot and mouth because of the tighter reporting requirements and because the disease will likely peak in June and July.
Last year, some 80,000 hand, foot and mouth cases were recorded in China, with 17 deaths, Mao said, adding that the figures were likely incomplete.
Among the latest deaths, a 2-year-old girl in the southern province of Hunan died of the disease Tuesday after being in a coma, the provincial health bureau said on its Web site.
Another death was reported in the neighboring Guangxi region, Guangxi health officials said. Xinhua said the victim was a 3-year-old boy who died May 3.
In the hardest-hit central province of Anhui, 22 children have died since March. Three fatalities have also been reported in Guangdong province in the south and one in Zhejiang province in the east.
Most of the cases have been blamed on enterovirus 71, or EV-71, one of several viruses that cause the illness. EV-71 can result in a more serious form of the disease that can lead to paralysis, brain swelling and sometimes death.
Xinhua reported that 10 people had been punished for failing to properly tackle hand, foot and mouth in Anhui. Mao said they had been "criticized" for how they handled the situation but did not give any details.
Troedsson said there are outbreaks caused by variations of EV-71 in China, Malaysia, Vietnam and Singapore, where there have been a total of 10,490 cases in 2008. No deaths have been reported.
Thailand is seeing infections from the coxsackievirus A16, another virus that commonly causes hand, foot and mouth. Taiwan has reported two deaths and 62 cases this year.
Hong Kong has reported 12 EV-71 infections and is on guard for the spread of the disease. The government on Wednesday called hand, foot and mouth its biggest health threat this summer.
"We need to put it in the right perspective," Troedsson said. "This is something that regularly happens in countries in this region."