updated 5/23/2008 1:25:26 PM ET 2008-05-23T17:25:26

The spread of a virus that has sickened more than 24,000 people and killed dozens across China is slowing in the province where the outbreak was first reported, a state-run news agency said Friday.

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The health department in eastern Anhui province said no deaths from the hand, foot and mouth disease virus had occurred there in the past 12 days, Xinhua News Agency reported.

Anhui was the worst-hit province with 26 deaths, and the outbreak was first reported there in March.

The virus has killed at least 43 people across China, but the state health ministry hasn't updated that number since May 16. The ministry didn't respond to a faxed request this week for an updated number, and a phone call to the ministry rang unanswered Friday night.

The report by Anhui's health department said the number of new cases reported daily had dropped from a high of 1,160 on May 1 to 153 on May 21. It said 10 people were still in serious or critical condition, Xinhua reported.

The virus has been yet another major concern for Chinese authorities as they prepare for the Beijing Olympics in August. Cases have been reported from Guangdong province in the south to Jilin province in the northeast, and in major cities including Beijing and Shanghai.

Most cases of hand, foot and mouth disease in China this year have been blamed on enterovirus 71, which usually infects children.

The virus spreads through contact with saliva, feces, nose and throat mucus or fluid secreted from blisters. There is no vaccine or specific treatment, but most children with mild forms of the illness recover quickly after suffering little more than a fever and rash.

The disease is expected to peak in the hot months of June and July.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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