China officials fired over disease reporting

March 23, 2009 5:49:15 AM PDT
Two Chinese health officials have been fired for mismanagement in the reporting of hand, foot and mouth disease and investigators are looking into a possible cover-up, state media said Monday. China Central Television reported that the two officials in Minquan County lost their jobs following a preliminary investigation by the Health Ministry. It did not elaborate on how they mismanaged reporting of the data.

The investigation follows a news report last week by China National Radio that medical staff at the county's hospital had apparently falsified medical histories to hide a large number of cases suffered in the area.

The disease typically strikes infants and children, and while occasionally deadly, most cases are mild with children recovering quickly after suffering little more than a fever and rash.

So far, Minquan has reported some 220 cases of the illness since Jan. 1, while the whole of Henan province in central China had more than 2,700 cases.

Investigators from the Health Ministry say it's unlikely there was a cover-up, but that they're still looking into the case.

The China Central Television report said that Yang Baojun, director of the Minquan County Health Bureau, and Wang Zaiji, head of the Minquan County People's Hospital, were fired.

Chinese leaders have been particularly sensitive to accusations of public health cover-ups given China's initial reluctance to release information during the SARS epidemic, which began in late 2002. Afterward, Premier Wen Jiabao apologized and promised greater transparency.

But last fall, China faced one of its worst-ever product safety scandals after the industrial chemical melamine was found in milk and other dairy products, sickening some 300,000 children and killing at least six.

The government later said the dairy at the center of the crisis knew as early as 2007 that its products were contaminated and that the company and local officials covered it up ahead of the Beijing Olympics.

The China National Radio report said that children with typical symptoms of the highly contagious disease had been variously misdiagnosed as having meningitis, upper respiratory infections, or intestinal infections by doctors.

Hand, foot and mouth disease, common in young children, is characterized by fever, mouth sores and a rash with blisters. It is spread by direct contact with nose and throat discharges, saliva, fluid from blisters, or the stool of infected persons. There is no vaccine or specific treatment.

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