The outbreak appears more widespread than in recent
years, based on previously released data, with around twice the number
of people infected than during the same period last year. 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.
Li Xinwang, a doctor at Beijing's Ditan Hospital,
said the peak season for the spread of the virus is usually May through
July, but that this year's early spike in cases indicates the toll will
likely be higher than average.
He attributed the high number of cases early in the
year to "dramatic temperature fluctuations" which helped spread the
virus, particularly in rural areas where sanitation is poor and health
care is substandard.
Health ministry spokesman Deng Haihua did not give
comparable figures for other years, making it difficult to accurately
compare with previous outbreaks.
The health ministry has said that China had about 80,000 hand, foot and mouth cases and 17 deaths in 2007.
State media reported last year that the virus
sickened 27,000 people and killed dozens in the first few months of
2008 before reports of outbreaks subsided in May. China's central Anhui
was the worst-hit province with 26 deaths. It's not known how many died
Deng told reporters that 94 per cent of all the
patients this year were under five years of age. He said officials were
stepping up prevention and awareness efforts to deal with the outbreak
but that the virus would likely continue to spread.
Hand, foot and mouth disease 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. It is not related to hoof and mouth
disease, which infects cattle, sheep and pigs.