Concerns over the spread of the hand, foot and mouth disease virus among young children in Thailand and Cambodia were fuelled on Thursday when Thailand suspended some primary and secondary school classes after closing more than 100 elementary schools, 22 of them in Bangkok
The closures come after nearly 14,000 cases of the virus were reported in Thailand, nearly all among children under five years old. No Thai deaths have been reported, but in Cambodia at least 55 children have died from the virus since April 1 – even though there are currently just 61 reported cases in the country.
The reason for the high death rate from such a small number of reported cases in Cambodia is because the virus is new to the country, explained World Health Organisation officials.
The disease has also killed 321 people in China in the second quarter of 2012, 50 per cent more than during the same period last year.
Officials from China’s centre for disease control have blamed the higher incidence on hot temperatures and have called on schools and parents to be more vigilant.
Symptoms can be as mild as general malaise or fever but can range to severe respiratory problems and even pulmonary failure; thus, only the most severe cases end up in Cambodian hospitals, said Brenton Burkholder, acting WHO representative in Bangkok. “This is most likely just the tip of the iceberg,” he said.
HFMD principally affects children under five, mainly because it is transmitted by person to person contact, Dr Burkholder said. However, Thai officials have detected some cases in children as old as 12.
A senior western diplomat in Bangkok said embassies had received calls from worried expatriate parents, but were advising them that Thai authorities were taking swift and appropriate steps to bring the situation under control. “It is reassuring to see how quickly Thai health workers were sent out to schools and playgrounds to scrub everything down,” he said, citing television news images of government efforts to counter the virus.
Thailand has an “extensive surveillance system” for the HFMD virus, having dealt with outbreaks before, Dr Burkholder said. “They know how it progresses, and based on historical records, it tends to peak in the rainy season. This year, though, the outbreak appears to be higher than usual.”
Thai health officials have also dismissed fears of a possible mutation of the virus. Pornthep Siriwanarangsan, head of the Thai health ministry’s disease control department, said no new strains of HFMD had been detected and that most of the infections had been caused by common strains, particularly the Enterovirus 71, or EV-71.
Thailand’s Bureau of Emerging Infectious Diseases on Wednesday said HFMD is near its peak and, while it could spread further in the next four to six weeks, would subside after that.
Additional reporting by Simon Rabinovitch in Beijing.
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