The skin disease that has killed 21 members of the H're community in the central province of Quang Ngai continues to elude Vietnam's public health officials and medical researchers, a high-ranking official said.
The latest theory posits that the afflicted rural residents contracted the illness from a fungus traditionally consumed by the H're. Meanwhile, the villagers, who have watched cases of the mysterious affliction ravage their small communities for more than a year, say they are getting more desperate by the day.
In an interview with Tuoi Tre on Sunday, Phan Trong Lan, deputy chief of the Ministry of Health's Department of Preventive Health, said that when Vietnam can conclude their studies of the illness, which starts with blisters on hand and feet and can end in deadly organ failure, "depends a great deal on luck."
"It's science, but it's also about luck," Lan said regarding their studies about the disease, which is estimated to have affected 200 people in Ba To and Minh Long districts in Quang Ngai.
"In fact, viruses and bacteria are unpredictable"¦so we need to conduct further study," he told Tuoi Tre.
Lan said that health officials may seek help from foreign organization and added that his team is still studying cases in which people fell ill again after responding to treatment.
When asked why the ministry has yet to invite the World Health Organization (WHO)'s experts to investigate the matter, Lan replied: "We consult them when necessary."
The official said that, as Vietnam is a member of WHO, officials from both sides remain in constant dialogue.
Lan added that his organization has sought help from the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention to make ensure they conduct "the best studies" and is currently working with Japan's Nagasaki University to analyze samples collected in the affected communities.
So far, the ministry's researchers who have traveled to Ba Dien Commune in Ba To District, suspect that the disease may be caused by the consumption of contaminated food or skin contact with a toxin.
"We lean towards food," Lan said, adding that they would complete their review of all 200 cases by Monday and continue to collect samples of blood, soil and food.
He said that the scientists have discovered Aflatoxins in previously collected samples of fungus-covered rice which had been consumed by members of the H're ethnic minority community, where all the victims have come from so far.
Members of the community deliberately cook the rice as a traditional food.
Aflatoxins, which are found in fungus, have been linked to liver diseases like cirrhosis and cancer.
"˜Waiting to die'
On Monday, Saigon Tiep Thi quoted a representative of WHO as saying that the organization has yet to receive any proposal regarding the strange skin condition in Quang Ngai.
Meanwhile, the paper noted, the residents of the affected communes continue to live in a heightened state of anxiety and desperation.
"One delegation after another has come to take samples of our blood, hair, nails ["¦] but the disease has yet to be identified," said Pham Van Dang, an elderly man in Reu Village, Ba Dien Commune. "Villagers are still dying from the disease and the number of afflicted residents continues to rise."
Dang stressed that the residents do not distrust the doctors, but dozens of physicians have visited their community for months and the plague continues to rage on.
Dang said that, on May 7, members of the village gathered in prayer to ask God to save them.
However, following the ceremony, two more villagers succumbed to the illness.
"Several people are now waiting to die, too," he said.
Pham Van Hien, another resident of Reu village, said that, since last year, six of his relatives have fallen ill due to the disease.
Following the death of his three-year-old grandson, Pham Van Sam, last October, Hien's family held a prayer ceremony. However, after that the condition of Sam's mother and Hien's daughter, 26-year-old Pham Thi An, only got worse.
The young woman was admitted to the Quy Hoa National Leprosy Dermatology Hospital in nearby Binh Dinh Province for treatment. After three months in the hospital, with no signs of improvement, "she became so fed up that she came home," Hien said.
But, the local authorities managed to convince An to return to the hospital, said Le Han Phong, chairman of Ba To District's People's Committee, which manages Ba Dien Commune.
Meanwhile, Nguyen Van Duong, head of Ba Dien Elementary Secondary School, said that, since the disease broke out last April, the student population has decreased day by day.
Many fell sick. Some died. Others left the village with their families, hoping to escape the disease, he said.
About ten families have evacuated from Ba Dien Commune, according to Pham Thi Nga, vice chairman of the Ba Dien Commune People's Committee.
"Since the disease broke out, the whole commune has done nothing but worry about the strange illness," Nga said.
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