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Fighting epidemics 'still big task'
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Health workers are facing an uphill battle to contain epidemics in regions devastated by last month's earthquake, although no major disease outbreaks have so far been reported, Minister of Health Chen Zhu said yesterday.

As summer approaches, the threat of infectious diseases, which often thrive in warm weather, increases, and those suffering from injury are most at risk, he told a meeting of health officials from across the country.

"Thanks to the efforts of disease prevention and control workers, there is no suggestion from our epidemic surveillance system that the number of cases of communicable diseases in the quake zone is any higher than last year," he said.

However, that does not mean there will be no such cases, he said.

"Even if there had not been the earthquake, diseases, including infectious ones, would still have happened."

From June 1-10, more than 500,000 children under 12 in areas affected by the quake were vaccinated against infections such as hepatitis A and encephalitis B, the health ministry said on its website yesterday.

"Simply experiencing such a huge trauma weakens people's immune systems. For those in more vulnerable groups, such as the elderly and children, the risk of infection is even greater," Chen said.

After first dealing with emergencies, the rescue and relief effort is now primarily concerned with the mass rehabilitation of survivors and the containment of disease, he said.

Dr Hans Anders Troedsson, the WHO's chief representative to China, who was at yesterday's meeting, said China is now going through a transition period, which could last for one or two years.

"Infection outbreaks will remain a health risk as long as there are makeshift houses and high densities of people," he said.

However, as long as issues such as the provision of clean water, good sanitation and safe food, as well as primary healthcare and disease control services are properly handled, the risk of epidemics will remain low, he said.

The reconstruction of healthcare facilities in areas affected by the quake is a priority, Chen said.

"We are trying our best to meet the health service demands and restore proper facilities as soon as possible," he said.

Given the huge loss of manpower, medical workers from other parts of the country will be deployed to help with the task, he said.

"For their well-organized, efficient, highly devoted rescue efforts, the country's medical workers deserve our praise and trust," he said.

As of noon yesterday, the death toll from the Sichuan earthquake was 69,172, up two from the day before, the State Council Information Office said.

The number of people injured nationwide was 374,159, while 17,420 people are still missing.

Hospitals have treated 95,654 patients, of whom 78,433 have been discharged, the Xinhua News Agency said yesterday.

(China Daily June 18, 2008)

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