Chinese press is reporting that local health authorities in eastern China were involved in covering up the incidence of a virus that has so far killed 20 children and sickened 1,500 others.
The China Youth Daily, the official organ of the Communist Youth League, compared the situation in Anhui province to the cover-up by Chinese officials of the SARS crisis in 2003.
Advertisement"SARS has already taught us the lesson that local officials who neglected their duties, gave false reports, and wrongly reported accomplishments while doing prevention work were punished," it said in a report on the Anhui problems.
The first reports of the outbreak of the intestinal virus known as enterovirus 71, or EV71, emerged on Monday, with local Chinese officials quoted as saying 19 children had died and nearly 800 had been infected in Anhui.
By Tuesday, the official Xinhua news agency said the death toll had risen to 20 with 1,520 children infected.
But hospitals in Fuyang city in Anhui started in early March to take in children with fever, blisters, mouth ulcers or rashes on the hands and feet, all symptoms of the virus, Xinhua said.
In its article, the China Youth Daily said that far scarier than the actual epidemic was the local government's initial denial of rumours about the disease.
"When the terrifying virus had already infected more than 10 unrelated children, the local government denied the rumours, saying that "a few" infants and pre-school children had indeed died in quick succession after they contracted spring respiratory illnesses, but these illnesses did not have any "infectious link"," it said.
EV71, which causes hand, foot and mouth disease, usually affects infants and children.
It is very contagious and is spread through direct contact with the mucus, saliva, or faeces of an infected person. It typically occurs in small epidemics in nursery schools or kindergartens.
It rarely affects adults as they have a strong enough immune system to defeat the virus.