Amid media claims of a cover-up about a virus that has killed 20 children in a month, authorities in Fuyang , Anhui province , have ordered kindergartens to close in a belated attempt to contain the spread of the disease.
Kindergartens were ordered to begin holidays on Monday, earlier than the usual May 1 start, and the municipal government held doctors and lower-level cadres personally responsible for the health of the 400,000 children in the city below the age of five, a Xinhua report said.
Those who failed to do their job and contain infections would be severely punished, the report said.
The enterovirus 71, or EV71, began spreading in the city early last month, and by yesterday had killed 20 children, most under the age of two.
Fuyang has recorded 1,520 cases so far, a jump of about 600 from the figure released on Monday, when the epidemic was first disclosed.
About one-third of the sick children have recovered, while another third are in hospital and 26 are seriously ill, according to Xinhua.
Enteroviruses spread mostly through contact with infected blisters or faeces and can cause high fever, paralysis and swelling of the brain or its lining. The virus had spread to the neighbouring cities of Haozhou and Liuan and to Xinyang in Henan province , where 16 babies were infected and have since recovered.
'We don't know what stage the epidemic is at yet,' the Beijing News quoted Wan Junfeng, deputy director of Fuyang Disease Prevention and Control Centre, as saying. 'We don't know whether it will continue to go up or start going down gradually.'
The epidemic comes four years after the city was hit by a fake milk powder scandal that left 12 babies dead.
Fuyang hospitals started taking in children with fevers, blisters, mouth ulcers or rashes on their hands and feet - all symptoms of the virus - early last month.
Fuyang media carried an interview with a local health official on April 15, who denied there was an epidemic. But the tone changed in less than a fortnight when city authorities announced that so many children had died of the disease.
The 40-day delay in reporting the outbreak triggered heated discussion in mainland media, which compared the treatment of the epidemic information to the early cover-up of Sars five years ago.