Pig disease in China now claims 24 lives and renders 117 sick

The death toll from an outbreak, of what is now thought to be a pig-borne disease, in the southwest Chinese province of Sichuan, has risen to 24, with another 117 thought be sick.

Although the victims were being treated with antibiotics, the death toll is still growing and doctors are now saying that approach is unsatisfactory.

Health Ministry spokesman Mao Qun'an says that the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention is conducting drug sensitivity tests to find a more effective treatment.

After a short period, when the mystery illness baffled health workers, laboratory tests confirmed that the affected people were suffering from streptococcus suis infections, contracted from the slaughtering or handling of infected pigs.

Although the bacteria is endemic in pigs in most countries in the world, human infections are rare.

The state media has been quick to add that even though no human-to-human infections have been found in the Sichuan outbreak, the death toll is unusually high.

Experts in Hong Kong say the Sichuan mortality rate stands at 17 percent so far, higher than the usual 10 percent.

If people refrained from slaughtering, processing or eating infected pigs, the disease can be prevented, says Chen Huanchun, vice-president of Huazhong Agricultural University.

He also said China was working on a vaccine to protect pigs from the disease.

A Hong Kong government spokeswoman says Sichuan authorities have suspended exports of chilled and frozen pork to Hong Kong.

The city imported 30,000 tonnes of chilled and frozen pork from Sichuan last year.

At the start of the outbreak 20 farm workers suffered fever, nausea and hemorrhaging, after handling sick or dead pigs and sheep in 12 towns and 15 villages in Sichuan province.

As health workers checked villages for ill people, more cases were reported.

According to the state media, the Chinese government has launched campaigns to slaughter infected pigs and investigate small farms with poor sanitation standards.

It is reported that pork prices in the affected Ziyang area of Sichuan have dropped 20 percent and farmers are worried their pigs will not survive the epidemic.

According to farmer Wang Jian, if his pigs die, it would mean a loss of 2,400 yuan ($296), about one-quarter of his family's annual income.

Earlier speculation that the deaths were caused by bird flu or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), were dismissed by the government of Sichuan earlier, and that assessment was confirmed by the World Health Organization.

Global health officials have been on high alert over a bird flu virus that has killed over 50 people in Asia since late 2003.

The SARS virus appears to have originated in Guangdong province in November 2002.

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