BEIJING — A mystery disease that has killed 17 farmers who handled sick pigs or sheep in China’s southwest is unrelated to bird flu or SARS and is probably caused by bacteria carried by pigs, state media reported Monday.
An additional 41 people were hospitalized in Sichuan province with symptoms that include high fever, fatigue, nausea and vomiting, and “became comatose later with bruises under the skin,” the official Xinhua News Agency said. It said 12 were in critical condition.
The illness likely stems from streptococcus suis, a bacteria that is usually spread among pigs, provincial health official Zeng Huajin was quoted as saying by the China Daily newspaper.
'Not SARS, anthrax or bird flu'
“I can assure you that the disease is absolutely not SARS, anthrax or bird flu,” Zeng said. He did not elaborate on how the illness spread to humans, saying more research needed to be done.
A spokesman for the World Health Organization said the symptoms reported “seem consistent” with streptococcus suis.
“We don’t think we’ve seen numbers on this scale before, but it might be because of a heightened surveillance system,” said Bob Dietz, a spokesman for the World Health Organization in Manila. “Of course we are concerned anytime we have a situation like this. We will continue to watch it closely.”
China is sensitive to such public health threats after criticism of its handling of severe acute respiratory syndrome, which emerged in 2002. The government was widely criticized for its slow response to pleas for information about the disease, which killed nearly 800 people worldwide before subsiding in July 2003.
China also is trying to contain an outbreak of avian flu in its west, where thousands of migratory birds have died in recent weeks.
Dietz said China has so far kept WHO informed “in a timely manner” about the outbreak that killed the farmers. WHO headquarters in Geneva was awaiting laboratory results before it would speculate on what the disease might be.
17 people killed
A man who answered the phone at the Sichuan health bureau on Monday said 17 people have died from the mystery illness and two have recovered. He refused to give his name, saying only that the cause of the deaths was under investigation.
A woman who answered the phone at the Ziyang No. 1 People’s Hospital, where most of the patients were being treated, hung up when asked about the cases.
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The last major pig-borne epidemic occurred in Malaysia, where 265 people were infected with the Nipah virus between 1998 and 1999. Some 105 people died and nearly a million hogs were slaughtered before the outbreak was controlled. The virus is capable of infecting a variety of animals and is lethal to about 50 percent of human patients, causing encephalitis.
The Chinese ministries of health and agriculture sent a team to Sichuan last week to help investigate, treat and control of the outbreak, the China Daily said.
Xinhua said medical experts believe the illness in Sichuan “is not spreading further among humans,” and that there were “no obvious signs of (an) epidemic.”
Shanghai’s Oriental Morning Post newspaper said the patients were 30 to 70 years old, and one was a woman.
The son of one victim told Hong Kong’s Cable TV said his father fell ill after slaughtering a pig and eating some of the meat. The names of the son and victim were not given.
Also Monday, two supermarket chains in Hong Kong stopped the sale of frozen pork from Sichuan as officials sought to assure the public the disease did not pose a threat to the territory.
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