Christian Living

chinaconnection 04/07/09

Hand-Foot-Mouth Disease Strikes Again

At least 15 people in China's Shandong Province have died from hand-foot-mouth disease this year, according to local health authorities, bringing the grand total of deaths this year to about 31 children nationwide.  On a more positive note, an additional 11,500 cases have been reported in Shandong Province, and about 7,100 have recovered. 

I wrote about last year's outbreak here, which had caused 28 deaths between January and May 7 of 2008.  Between last January and November, 128 had died from the disease including 40 children. Here are some of my thoughts:

"HFMD isn't some new and mysterious exotic disease.  It's about as threatening as a chicken pox.  According to the Mayo Clinic description, it's mild and highly contagious, causing sores in the mouth, and a rash on the hands and feet.  Young children are most prone to spreading the disease and it usually clears up on its own in about 7 to 10 days. 

While I do not have a medical background, from a health perspective alone, it doesn't really make much sense that China's hand-foot-and-mouth disease would receive so much medical attention.  When you compare this disease with many others, it's fairly innocuous, especially considering in the U.S. alone,
chicken pox affects four million people, including 100 deaths. . . .

It would be one thing if this were a new disease with a lot of variables enshrouded in mystery.  That's not the case, however, and I hardly think that a disease with a fatality rate of about 0.17% this year classifies as a "deadly disease."  Last year, only 17 of China's 80,000 reported cases were fatal, which would lower the percentage even more to .02%."

Needless to say, this outbreak doesn't even compare to the loss that was to come just seven days after that blog, when the earthquake in Sichuan Province caused at least 70,000 deaths.  But the greatest consequence of hand-foot-and-mouth disease isn't the number of citizens who are directly affected by it; it's the way that the health care system and government respond to it. 

In recent years, the Chinese government has been harshly criticized for covering up deaths and outbreaks of SARs, bird flu, and even AIDs.  Last fall's melamine milk fiasco didn't really assist their reputation for transparency, either.  

The multiple reports of deaths and casualties from hand-foot-and-mouth disease this year show a refreshing departure from earlier strategies of trying to cover up health epidemics.  

Is it possible that a large number of cases is still underreported?  Of course.  At the same time, the fact that we're hearing about the growing number of instances of hand-foot-mouth disease is a change from earlier diseases.    

The improved openness also bodes well for yesterday's announcement of comprehensive reforms of China's healthcare system.  While improved transparency is only a step in the long journey towards health reforms, it's a much-needed step.   

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