HANOI (AlertNet) - A virulent strain of hand, foot and mouth disease has killed 18 children in Vietnam since the start of the year and there are concerns more could die as record infection levels continue, the Red Cross said on Wednesday.
The disease has already infected over 28,000 children in the Southeast Asian country this year, more than 10 times the number of children infected in the same period last year, a senior official from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said.
"The worry is that if we don't intervene now it would become very endemic and you would need a much more long-term programme (to tackle it)," Bhupinder Tomar, IFRC's country representative in Vietnam, told AlertNet.
He said the disease could cause more deaths this year than than last year when 169 people died from the viral illness which according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) has become a significant public health issue in Vietnam.
Eighty percent of the children who died from the hand, foot and mouth disease (HFMD) disease are under three the Red Cross said. Sixteen of the children are from the south of the country.
The virus causes fever and sores in the throat and blisters on the hands and feet. It is contagious, spreading through direct contact with nose and throat discharges, saliva, fluid from blisters, or the stool of infected persons.
It is different from the foot-and-mouth disease which affects cattle, sheep, and pigs.
HFMD is usually mild and patients generally recover in seven to 10 days, but a virulent strain called EV71 can be fatal. EV71 used to account for only a small percentage of infections in previous years but was responsible for all HFMD deaths in Vietnam last year, the Red Cross said.
The cause of HFMD as well as its virulent strain is unknown, and currently there are no treatment.
Cases of HFMD, which is endemic in Vietnam and occurs every year among babies and pre-school children, reached unprecedented levels last year, infecting 110,000 and resulting in 169 deaths.
HFMD cases also increased in other Asian countries last year, including in Singapore, Thailand, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. The WHO says it is working with the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention and relevant ministries to find the cause of the spike.
In Vietnam, a survey of hospitalised cases in the southern province of Dong Nai in 2011 found that the majority of most susceptible children are from internal migrant families living in densely populated areas where housing and sanitation are inadequate, the Red Cross said.
Without a proper treatment regime, the best way to reduce deaths and contain the spread is through prevention, Tomar said, adding that the risk of infection can be lowered by good hygiene practices and prompt medical attention for children showing severe symptoms.
IFRC is appealing for $840,000 to fund a programme aimed at preventing the spread of the disease.