An outbreak of hand-foot-and-mouth disease in China has sickened nearly 12,000 people and killed 26 children, authorities said Monday.
Twenty-four deaths in the provinces of Anhui and Guangdon were blamed on enterovirus 71, one of several viruses that cause the disease, state newspaper Xinhua said.
The two other children who died, one in Guangdong and another in coastal Zhejiang province, also had hand-foot-and-mouth disease, but it wasn't clear which strain of the virus killed them, officials said.
The state newspaper said the total number of infections reported across the country was 11,905, nearly double reports from earlier in the day.
Xinhua attributed the drastic jump to a new regulation from the health ministry on Friday that classified hand-foot-and-mouth disease as one that must now be reported to the government.
Before then, local health authorities did not need to report cases.
Viral disease affects young children
State-run television showed workers spraying disinfectant around houses in rural areas outside Fuyang and medical teams visiting families with small children.
CBC's Michael Cormier, reporting from Beijing, said there have been accusations of a coverup, but local media have begun reporting extensively on the disease.
"The fact that the press is covering this shows that China is maybe going to be more open than it was with SARS," Cormier said.
In 2003, a global outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) was traced back to southern China, and authorities in Beijing were accused of not informing global health organizations about the disease.
The symptoms of enterovirus 71 include fever, mouth sores and rashes with blisters. It is easily spread by sneezing or coughing.
The virus mainly strikes children aged 10 or younger. Some cases lead to paralysis and fatal swelling of the brain.
There is no vaccine or specific treatment, but most children affected by mild forms of the disease typically recover quickly without problems.
Xinhua said 10,212 children had been reported infected in the hardest-hit areas, including the provinces of Anhui, Guangdong, Zhejiang, and the capital Beijing. All were below the age of six and the majority were under the age of two, it said.
There were smaller outbreaks in Hebei, Jiangsu, Hunan, Hubei, Shaanxi, Jiangxi and Henan provinces and in the city of Chongqing. Nearly all deaths were blamed on enterovirus 71, also known as EV-71, but it was not clear how many overall infections were traced to the virus.
Zhejiang's provincial health bureau said on its website that only nine of its 1,198 cases had tested positive for EV-71. Chongqing said none of its 42 infections have been confirmed to be caused by EV-71.
The World Health Organization (WHO) says the virus normally peaks in June and July, so there could still be more infections as the weather warms.
The outbreak is another headache for China's government as it prepares to host this summer's Olympic Games, already tarnished by unrest among Tibetans in western China and an international torch relay disrupted by protests.
WHO's China representative, Hans Troedsson, said at a press conference, "I don't see it at all as a threat to the Olympics or any upcoming events."