Central Vietnam district given rice after mold emerges suspect in fatal skin condition

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Authorities in Quang Ngai Province in central Vietnam have supplied 60 tons of rice to a district hit by a mysterious skin condition that has killed at least 19 people.

The rice supply follows the emergence of rice mold as a suspect in causing the skin condition.

A Friday report by news website VnExpress said the rice will replace the fungus-covered rice, which the ethnic locals have been eating deliberately as a traditional food.

Officials from Vietnam's Health Ministry said at a meeting April 28 that many patients with the skin condition had been affected by rice mold.

A study of the 33 affected families, all in the district's Ba Dien Commune, showed that 68 percent had used moldy rice.

Each person in the commune has been given 15 kilograms of normal rice.

The skin condition has so far infected 179 people, including four new cases late last month, and killed 19 people.

The ministry has ruled out microorganisms as the cause and narrowed the suspects to poisons that can be passed either by external contact or eating.

It has said that it would consult the World Health Organization if no final conclusions can be reached in a couple days.

The skin condition begins with high fever, loss of appetite and causes inflamed, thickened skin on palms and feet.

Doctor Tran Hau Khang, director of Vietnam National Dermatology Hospital, said liver enzyme levels in infected people, most of them children and young people, have been found to increase by 4-20 times the normal.

Le Han Phong, chairman of the district People's Committee, said the illness responds well to treatment but patients who are not treated early can suffer liver problems before suffering multi-organ failure.

First infections in the district were reported last April. The condition died out by the year-end, but has returned with eight deaths between March 27 and April 5 this year. It has re-infected 29 people.

Nguyen Van Duong, principal of the only primary and secondary school in the commune, said the school had 169 students but 29 have been infected this year and had to drop class. "Eight of them died and nine are being treated at medical centers," Duong said.

He said many healthy students have also dropped out of class for fear of getting infected and only 50-60 percent of the students are still attending school.

Health Minister Nguyen Thi Kim Tien has said the infection is not contagious.

The ministry's experts on April 24 said they found the flea-carried Rickettsia in half of the blood samples taken from the district on April 12-13, but added the typhus bacterium had not caused the fatal skin condition.

The Ministry of Defense also sent teams to the district to collect soil, water and air samples on suspicions the skin condition could have been caused by toxins left from Vietnam War.

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