BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese provinces have reported nearly 10,000 additional cases of children who have developed kidney illnesses after drinking toxic milk formula in recent days, local media reported on Friday.
Attention on the growing scandal in China was at least temporarily overshadowed by the launch late on Thursday of China’s third manned space mission, which is set to include the technologically ambitious nation’s first space walk.
But Beijing is battling public alarm and international dismay after thousands of Chinese children were hospitalized, sick from milk formula tainted with melamine, a cheap industrial chemical that can be used to cheat quality checks. Four have died.
The Ministry of Health has not issued a fresh count of infants suffering kidney problems and complications since Sunday.
It said then that 12,892 were in hospital, 104 with serious illness, and close to 40,000 others were affected but did not need major treatment.
However more recent counts from province-level health authority numbers across the country showed that at least another 9,959 cases have been diagnosed this week with illnesses linked to the toxic milk.
Much of that rise was in Hebei, the northern province that is home to Sanlu Dairy group, which made the contaminated formula that sparked the broader milk scandal.
The Hebei Daily (hbrb.hebnews.cn) said Hebei province alone had diagnosed 13,773 cases up to Thursday, an increase of 4,794 on four days earlier.
Shao Mingli, head of the State Food and Drug Administration, warned his staff that the government would not tolerate cover-ups or reporting delays, after local officials sat on news for at least a month — if not longer — that Sanlu’s milk was suspect.
“Under no circumstances turn a deaf ear to people’s complaints and pretend they do not exist,” he told a meeting, according to the transcript of a speech on the watchdog’s website (www.sda.gov.cn).
Millions across China watched the launch of the Shenzhou VII spacecraft on live television on Thursday and images of the rocket blasting off dominated official newspapers.
But the health and political fallout from children poisoned with melamine is hardly likely to disappear soon.
There are no numbers available yet for China’s big commercial hub, Shanghai, but state media said many infants there may have been affected.
“A recent city-wide health check of children under three years old showed about five percent were diagnosed with symptoms of possible kidney stones after being fed contaminated powdered milk,” the China Daily reported.
The count of recent provincial-level numbers indicated 1,019 additional children were hospitalized this week. But the statistics did not make clear if those cases were included in or separate from the larger number diagnosed with kidney damage.
The count from provincial sources showed no new deaths. The World Health Organization (WHO) representative in China said effective medical help made many more deaths unlikely.
“We don’t expect a large increase in the number of deaths, because we have to remember that a child usually doesn’t die from a kidney stone itself, but from its complications,” WHO representative Hans Troedsson told a news conference in Beijing.
“... the treatment has been shown (to be) effective in China,” he said.
The Maldives became the latest country to pull Chinese dairy products from its shelves.
“Our inspectors have gone out, plus we are warning the public on TV and radio,” said Moosa Anwar, director-general at the Maldives Food and Drug Authority.
Hong Kong’s government set up a taskforce on Friday that will find ways to manage the huge numbers of children turning up for kidney examinations and to cope with mainland Chinese who are traveling to Hong Kong to have their children checked.
Five cases of children made sick by drinking tainted milk have been reported in Hong Kong.
Taiwan media reported three cases involving four children and an adult with kidney stones or signs of calcification in the kidneys. In one case, a 3-year-old girl and her 2-year-old brother were found to have kidney stones after drinking milk made with powder from China, the Liberty Times reported.
The European Commission proposed on Thursday tests and restrictions on Chinese food products containing powdered milk. UNICEF and the World Health Organization called China’s growing milk scandal “deplorable.”
In Shanghai, the producer of China’s popular White Rabbit Creamy Candies said it would stop domestic sales of such sweets, Xinhua news agency quoted an official as saying.
The candy’s producer, Guanshengyuan, had earlier recalled its exports to more than 50 countries.
Nitrogen-rich melamine can be added to substandard or watered-down milk to fool quality checks, which often use nitrogen levels to measure the amount of protein in milk. The chemical is used in pesticides and in making plastics.
Additional reporting by James Pomfret and Tan Ee Lyn in Hong Kong, Judith Evans in Male, Gina Chang in Taipei and Liu Zhen, Yu Le and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Paul Tait