Doctor hailed as a hero for sounding alarm on outbreak

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 May, 2008, 12:00am

State media has praised a doctor in Fuyang , Anhui province , for alerting experts about the outbreak of the deadly hand, foot and mouth disease when her colleagues insisted the cases were just colds or flu.

The official People's Daily carried a tribute with the headline 'We salute you, Fuyang's Liu Xiaolin', comparing her to a doctor who helped lead the fight against the deadly Sars virus.

'We have no way to count how many children were treated and cured because of Liu Xiaolin's responsibility and steadfastness; there is also no way to calculate how many families avoided the epidemic because of her sharpness and courage,' it said.

Speaking to a room packed with reporters, the soft-spoken 51-year old paediatrician said she was 'only doing my job' and played down her role in fighting the disease, which has killed 34 children under three so far and left more than 25,000 infected.

Despite her modesty, Dr Liu is considered a heroine for her courage in speaking out.

In 2004, Dr Liu helped to uncover a fake baby formula scandal that shocked the nation and attracted worldwide attention. The fake milk powder was later found to be responsible for the death of at least 12 infants in the city's suburb areas.

More than 200 babies suffered wasted limbs and swollen heads - common symptoms of malnutrition. The babies were dubbed as 'big head babies' by mainland media. China launched a crackdown on fake baby formula soon afterwards.

This time, Dr Liu's alertness may again save hundreds of children. She is the one who alerted the experts on March 28 after she was baffled by the death of some young patients.

Speaking earlier this week, Dr Liu said: 'I am only doing my job. One person can't do much; treating the sick children takes team work. Many of my colleagues haven't returned to their home to see their family for weeks,' said Dr Liu, mother of one son. She has stayed at the hospital since March 28, when the first batch of infected babies arrived.

The two babies, suffering from pneumonia-like symptoms, died hours later. Most of Dr Liu's colleagues thought they had died from severe colds or flu. She alone refused to draw a hasty conclusion.

'Up to 98 per cent of pneumonia patients recover after treatment. I started wondering what is happening,' she said.

She informed the head of the hospital and rang the city's health officials the next morning. Meanwhile, she also started surfing the internet to check if there were similar cases in other areas. After going through the materials, Dr Liu concluded that enterovirus 71 was the cause of the children's deaths.

The Anhui government did not announce the outbreak until April 23, by which time thousands of children had been sent to hospitals.

The authorities have been accused of trying to cover up the outbreak.

The World Health Organisation said the delay in announcing the outbreak of hand, foot and mouth disease was not because of any cover-up but due to problems doctors faced when trying to identify the illness.

The city government hopes Dr Liu's story will help clear their names. Dr Liu, on the other hand, hopes to use the opportunity to restore Fuyang's tarnished name.

It has been dubbed China's 'troubled city'.

'Fuyang is a victim of the milk powder scandal. We didn't manufacture that milk powder,' she said. 'The unethical businessmen elsewhere sold them to our people.

'I discovered this and told the media, hoping it could save lives. But media distorted the whole thing and made people think badly about Fuyang.

'Actually they should thank us because ever since the scandal, the central government has improved the supervision over baby food.'

Dr Liu has personally suffered from the stigma people heaped on Fuyang. Her 20-year-old son is studying in Nanjing.

'He is ashamed of telling people he is from Fuyang,' she said. 'My son has never blamed me for uncovering the scandal. I want my son to be proud of his own city.'

She felt sorry for 'leaving her son behind' because she had to devote herself to her work.

'I'm not a good mother. I didn't spend much time with my son. I haven't attended any of his school's opening days.'

Dr Liu was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999. She believes it was an experience that helped her understand the feeling of patients.

'I have been very devoted to my work. After the illness, I am even more devoted because I know how it feels when you're very ill,' she said.