Vietnam quarantines half-vacant village as illness rages on

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World Health Organization awaits green light to assist central village after unidentified mysterious symptoms kill 19 and afflict 171 in central district


A patient from Quang Ngai Province's Ba To District being treated for an unidentified skin condition at the Quy Hoa National Leprosy Dermatology Hospital in Binh Dinh Province.

No one has been allowed in or out of Reu Village since last Thursday.

A makeshift bamboo barrier blocks every road leading to the village in Ba To District's Ba Dien Commune and a traditional curfew, observed in times of crisis, has kept the remaining villagers confined to their homes after sundown.

Pham Van Trach, 16, lay in a hammock in his older brother's garden. It was easy to recognize the signs of infection on his face and arms.

"I was just discharged from the hospital. My brother's family is still at the Quy Hoa [Hospital]," he said.

The boy, who lives with his brother's family has survived on food donated by his neighbors during the past few days.

"We are performing rituals to dispel ghosts and appeal to the Gods to help the afflicted villagers," said Pham Van Dang, the village patriarch.

In the past three weeks, the unidentified illness has killed 19 of the roughly 170 patients in Quang Ngai Province's Ba To District.

The illness begins with a high fever and loss of appetite. Skin inflammation, particularly on the palms and feet, soon follow.

The first case of the unidentified illness was reported on April 19, 2011. The condition seemed to die out late last year.

This spring, the village saw 68 cases and 8 deaths between March 27 and April 5.

Colonel Dinh Ngoc Tan, head of the Military Institute of Chemistry and Environmental Sciences, told reporters that Pham Van Mai, a village elder, first saw the symptoms five years ago, around the same time the villagers had buried an unknown quantity of a "strange chemical."

Col. Tan said Mai has given them a map to the chemical's burial site. No further details were provided.

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Meanwhile, the Quang Ngai Health Department told Vietweek on April 24 that experts from the Health Ministry are suspecting that the condition is a tick-borne disease caused by the bacteria Rickettsia.

Fourteen of the 26 blood samples taken from residents with the skin disease symptoms at Ba Dien Commune tested positive for Rickettsia, the department said.

Vietnamese health authorities have yet to offer any proper diagnosis for the condition, which re-emerged in recent weeks.

At least 29 villagers are suffering the mysterious symptoms for the second time, suggesting that some patients are unable to build up strong immunity, following the first round of infections.

Ghost town

In the past few days, many frightened villagers have relocated. Those who remain say that the residents of surrounding communities have refused to visit them.

"Last week, a villager died but few attended the funeral. They were afraid that the ghost would seize their lives as well," said villager Pham Van Khiem.

Like Khiem and Dang, all Hre ethnic people were given the family name of Prime Minister

Pham Van Dong (1906-2000) in 1975. Traditionally, members of tribe only carried one name.

Many of the houses in the village now stand empty as families crowd into hospitals to watch over sick relatives. Others moved to surrounding villages in fear of "ghosts."

"We're trying to calm them down without having an explanation," he said. "We know nothing about the condition."

Dang said the illness has totally upended life in the village. Men refuse to go to the field and many children have ceased going to class.

"Everyone is afraid that they'll contract the disease sooner or later," he said.

Nearly 50 patients have been admitted to the Quy Hoa National Leprosy and Dermatology Hospital in neighboring Binh Dinh Province.

Nguyen Van Duong, principal of Ba Dien Secondary School, said half of the school's pupils stopped showing up to class in recent weeks, just a few weeks before final exams.

Meanwhile, according to the commune chairman, Pham Van Hoa, only five of 75 students continue to attend the community's only kindergarten.

"Some of these children contracted the disease but the parents of healthy kids are too afraid to take them to school," he said, adding that many families have simply moved to other villages.

Toxin suspected

Experts from the Ministry of National Defense gathered at Ba To District in Quang Ngai Province on April 20-21 to determine the cause of the problem.

The experts interviewed locals about their diets and possible sites of contamination.

Officials from the ministry have claimed that senior residents told them that the district once housed a US arsenal. Early this week, military scientists began collecting water and soil samples. Some suspect that toxins left over from the Vietnam War may be responsible for the recent outbreak.

Le Han Phong, chairman of Ba To District People's Committee, said that patients who do not seek medical treatment soon after symptoms emerge can eventually suffer liver problems and organ failure.

Tran Hau Khang, director of the National Dermatology Hospital in Hanoi, said that, although the illness has yet to be identified, it does not appear to be contagious.

The military experts said they will study the water and soil samples and confirm, possibly in ten days, if the condition was brought on by exposure to toxins.

Officials from the Ministry of Health visited Ba To, earlier this month, to gather skin and hair samples"”they may have some test results next week.

On April 20, Deputy Health Minister Nguyen Thanh Long announced that his agency planned to seek help from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the US Center for Disease Control (USCDC).

Tarik Jasarevic, a spokesman for the WHO told Vietweek that the organization is monitoring the situation and awaiting further instruction.

"We are not aware of any reports of similar symptoms elsewhere in Vietnam"¦ No evidence for human-to-human transmission of this disease has been presented," he told Vietweek via email on Tuesday.

 "The WHO is in contact with the Ministry of Health about this event and is ready to provide technical support if asked," he added.

Jasarevic said WHO has yet to receive an official request from the Ministry of Health to provide assistance.

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