The Chinese government on Wednesday warned that a lethal intestinal virus that killed 20 children in east China could cause more deaths.
The virus, known as Enterovirus 71, or EV71, has already killed 20 children in Fuyang city in Anhui province, and has infected 1,884 kids, the state-controlled Xinhua news agency said on Wednesday.
"We estimate that the hand, foot and mouth disease [caused by EV71] in Fuyang city will still continue for some time, the number of cases will continue to increase, and serious and fatal cases might still continue to happen," the Health Ministry said in a statement on its website.
The World Health Organisation earlier in the week also voiced concern over the epidemic in Anhui.
"Although Enteroviruses infecting humans are found worldwide and Enterovirus 71 has been reported in China over recent years we believe the situation is still of concern, especially because of the current high reported case fatality rate compared to previous years," Dr Cris Tunon, a senior official at the WHO, said in a statement emailed to AFP on Wednesday.
But the Health Ministry tried to calm fears, saying that now that cases were being discovered early, and medical work had been strenghtened, "the successful treatment rate of the serious cases will markedly increase."
Reports of the outbreak only emerged on Monday on Xinhua, which said that hospitals in Fuyang city started in early March to take in children with symptoms of the virus, leading to accusations by Chinese press of a cover-up by local authorities.
The incident was further amplified by reports that 16 children had caught EV71 in Henan province, which borders Anhui on the West, sparking fears the disease had spread from Fuyang city.
The children are now cured and out of hospital, Ma Jianzhong, head of Henan's health department, was quoted as saying in the Beijing Times.
"It is not because Henan had a case of hand, foot and mouth disease that one can say the disease spread to Henan," Rao Keqin, an official at the Health Ministry, said.