Chinese Pig-Borne Disease Spreads

The death toll from a pig-borne disease in southwestern China rose to 31 on Friday as health officials stepped up preventative measures and tried to reassure the public that the government had the outbreak under control.

The disease, blamed on the bacteria streptococcus suis, has swept through dozens of villages in Sichuan province since June, infecting farmers who handled or butchered sick pigs.

So far, 152 confirmed and suspected cases have been found, with 27 people hospitalized in critical condition, according to the Ministry of Health. Seven patients have been released from the hospital.

"The epidemic is at present under control," the official Xinhua News Agency said, citing Health Minister Gao Qiang, who arrived in Sichuan on Thursday to inspect the area.

Gao warned that precautions - including a ban on the killing, transporting and selling of sick pigs - still needed to be taken since the source of the outbreak had not been determined. No person-to-person transmissions have been reported.

Jiang Zhuhui, a farmer, said he and his family were "afraid when the disease began to spread" and stopped eating pork.

"But now, we know that the disease is not infectious between people. That reassures us," Jiang said in a telephone interview.

Symptoms of the disease include, fever, nausea, vomiting and bleeding under the skin.

The World Health Organization has said it is the largest known outbreak of the disease in the region in recent years.

Bob Dietz, a WHO spokesman in Manila, said the streptococcus bacteria can enter humans from under the cuticles, through an open wound or - in less common cases - through ingestion of improperly cooked meat from a sick pig. In the latest outbreak, it was possible that another virus or bacteria was causing the high rate of infection, he said.

"Our greatest concern in this situation remains the sheer numbers that we are seeing," Dietz said. "We remain wary of saying that there may not be some other cause and effect that are making these people sick. ... We still cannot come up with a good explanation with why we are seeing such a high numbers."

China was criticized for being reluctant to release information during its outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, which emerged in the country's south and killed nearly 800 people around the world before subsiding in July 2003.

The outbreak of the pig-borne disease prompted fears that SARS had returned. China is also trying to contain an outbreak of bird flu in its northwest, where thousands of migratory birds have died.

At least 50,000 health workers have been sent to nearly 1.4 million farming households to register every pig in the region, the China Daily reported.

Officials in the city of Ziyang, where many farmers in surrounding areas have been infected, have issued more than 2 million posters urging farmers not to slaughter or eat sick pigs, the newspaper said.

Temporary roadside quarantine stations have also been set up to stop dead swine from being transported to markets, it said.

Meanwhile, Beijing has stopped importing pigs and pork products from Sichuan, the Beijing Evening News reported. Inspectors will check markets to make sure none can be found, the newspaper said.

Doctors were still trying to find a drug to treat the disease. They have so far been relying on heavy doses of antibiotics.

By Audra Ang