Hand, foot and mouth disease spreads to pandemic levels

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Official re-classifies the outbreak as death toll reaches 81


A child being treated for hand, foot and mouth disease in Ho Chi Minh City. The Vietnamese health ministry is considering declaring the disease a pandemic, as more than 32,000 cases of the illness have claimed 81 lives across the country so far this year.

The Ministry of Health is considering declaring hand, foot and mouth disease (HFMD) a pandemic, as more than 32,000 cases of the illness have killed 81 across the country so far this year.

According to the ministry, the disease has hit 52 of 62 cities and provinces, mostly in the southern and central regions. Some 96 percent of the fatalities have been children under the age of five.

The Ho Chi Minh City Health Department said the southern metro had the highest HFMD toll with 22 fatalities out of 7,352 infections. Ninety percent of the patients in HCMC were children under three, according to the department.

"At the moment, we can say an HFMD pandemic has broken out. It's status is no longer "˜at risk of breaking out,' as before," Health Minister Nguyen Thi Kim Tien told health authorities in HCMC on Monday (August 15).

Nguyen Van Binh, chief of the Vietnam Administration of Preventive Medicine, said Vietnam has the world's second-highest HFMD death toll, after China.

The pressure is on

The HCMC Children's Hospitals 1 and 2 the southern region's two major pediatric hospitals are currently inundated with HFMD patients.

"During any given day, we have 7,000 patients in hospital being examined at HCMC Children's Hospital 1," said Dr. Tang Chi Thuong, the hospital's director. "Of those, around 2,000 must stay at the hospital for treatment."

To make room for the HFMD patients, children with other infectious diseases have been transferred to other departments outside the Contagious Disease Unit, Thuong said.

He said the number of HFMD patients from HCMC was decreasing, but the number of patients from neighboring provinces admitted to the hospital was on the rise.

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At the moment, the hospital is treating 2,159 HFMD cases.

Meanwhile, HCMC Children's Hospital 2 received 4,085 HFMD patients in the first half of August, of which 528 patients had to stay in the hospital for treatment. One of those patients has died from the disease.

The disease has also left parents and teachers worried for the newly begun school year as the upcoming rainy season will provide weather conditions conducive to the spread of HFMD.

Nguyen Ha Hai Anh, a resident of HCMC's District 3 said: "I have two children who are attending kindergarten. After picking up the kids from school each day, my husband and I measure their temperature, touch their foreheads and closely watch their bodies to see if there are any rashes or if they have a fever.

"It is really distressing," Anh said.

Le Hong Son, director of the HCMC Department of Education and Training, said all schools and kindergartens in the city have been sterilizing their facilities against the disease for the past two weeks.

Keep your hands clean

Since there is no vaccine to prevent HFMD, the best defense against the disease is a sterile environment, according to Vietnamese health authorities. The health ministry has said washing hands with soap and water is the best thing any one person can do.

"Keep your hands clean," Health Minister Nguyen Thi Kim Tien told local children and their caretakers recently.

Chloramine-B, used as a cleanser to prevent waterborne diseases, is being distributed for free by the Vietnamese government to help fight the HFMD epidemic.

However, on July 29, more than 50 children at the unlicensed Hoa Binh Kindergarten in the southern province of Binh Duong were hospitalized after eating cereal during snack time.

The kids suffered from fatigue, convulsions and vomiting, while some even fell unconscious.

It turned out that the kids had accidentally drunk Chloramine-B powder dissolved in water, which the teachers mistook for cereal powder.

The kindergarten was forced to close after the incident.

Help on the way

The European Commission will provide €60,000 (US$86,400) from its Disaster Relief Emergency Fund to the Vietnam Red Cross to help control the HFMD breakout, the Delegation of the European Union to Vietnam announced Tuesday.

The funding aims to raise public awareness of the disease and encourage sanitation work to prevent the disease from spreading further, it said.

The program will target parents and caregivers who take care of children below the age of five, teachers and primary school pupils.

Activities will be implemented from August to November at 75 communes in Ho Chi Minh City and the provinces of Dong Nai, Binh Duong, Quang Ngai and Thanh Hoa.

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