BEIJING - China has made it mandatory for health care providers to report all cases of a viral illness that has sickened thousands of young children across the country, as the death toll rose Wednesday to 28.
So far there have been 15,799 cases of hand, foot and mouth disease this year, the official Xinhua News Agency said, cropping up in areas ranging from the tropical island province of Hainan in the south to Jilin province in the northeast and Yunnan province in the southwest.
The number and scope of cases in recent years, along with the need for increased surveillance, prompted the Health Ministry to enforce the new reporting rules, spokesman Mao Qun'an said.
"This demonstrates our commitment to people's health," Mao said at a rare news conference held jointly with the World Health Organization.
Under the mandate that took effect Tuesday, health care providers need to report cases to the ministry within 24 hours.
Hand, foot and mouth disease spreads through contact with saliva, feces, fluid secreted from blisters or mucus from the nose and throat. There is no vaccine or specific treatment, but most children affected by the disease typically recover quickly without problems. It is unrelated to the foot and mouth disease that affects livestock.
The rocketing number of cases burgeoning across a large area of China brings up parallels with the Communist leadership's handling of previous infectious outbreaks, especially that of SARS in 2003.
Government attempts to conceal the emergence of severe acute respiratory syndrome — a new disease at the time — contributed to its spread, ultimately causing 774 deaths worldwide and forcing Beijing to apologize amid international criticism.
Xinhua reported this week that 10 people had been punished for failing to properly tackle hand, foot and mouth in the hard-hit central province of Anhui, where 22 children have died. Mao said they had been "criticized" for how they handled the situation but did not give any details.
The outbreaks are the latest headache for authorities as they gear up for this summer's Beijing Olympics. Preparations have already been upset by unrest in Tibet and protests during the global torch run.
Mao insisted there would not be any impact on the games, which begin Aug. 8. Already embassies and foreign schools have sent out notices urging vigilance against the disease.
Both Mao and WHO China representative Hans Troedsson said they expected more cases to emerge because of the tighter reporting requirements and because the disease will likely peak with warmer weather in June and July.