Chinese authorities have ordered local health officials to swiftly report all new cases of a fast-moving virus blamed for killing 28 children across the nation and infecting more than 15,000, most younger than 5.
Cases of Enterovirus-71, a strain of what is often called hand, foot and mouth disease, must be reported to the Health Ministry within 24 hours of detection, officials announced Wednesday.
"Some of the fatalities occurred because of late response time," said Mao Qunan, a Health Ministry spokesman. "They were sent to hospital too late, increasing the difficulty of treating them. But early detection and early treatment can help curb the outbreak."
The mandate was seen as an effort to avoid a repeat of the public health debacle that roiled Beijing during the SARS epidemic in 2003 that spread from China to other countries after initial treatment was delayed by a coverup.
The current outbreak initially was concentrated in the city of Fuyang in the eastern province of Anhui, where it claimed 22 lives and sickened about 4,000. But it quickly spread to at least 11 cities, from cosmopolitan Shanghai in the east to tropical Hainan in the south and mountainous Yunnan in the west.
As symptoms appeared in Beijing, the upcoming Olympic host city, two kindergartens were shut down as a precaution.
No deaths have been reported in Beijing, but officials say the peak season for the disease is usually June and July, raising the urgency to contain the outbreak before the August Games.
According to the official New China News Agency, two doctors have been punished for not transferring a patient promptly to a county hospital after he was admitted last week with high fever. In another case, a village doctor was fined for illegally injecting 17 children with a medication he claimed could prevent the disease. Five other officials were reprimanded for failing to inform the public about the contagious disease.
Hand, foot and mouth is a common childhood plague typically characterized by blisters and rashes. There is no vaccine for EV-71; most children recover from mild forms of the disease.
The latest casualties were a 2-year-old girl in the southeastern province of Hunan who died after going into a coma and a 3-year-old boy in Guangxi, in the southeast.