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Death Toll Continues to Rise from Mysterious Outbreak of Pig-Borne Disease in China

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Only three days ago the first news came out of China that a mysterious flu-like illness had stricken some 58 farmers and killed 17 in the southwestern part of the country. The symptoms exhibited b the victims included high fever, fatigue, nausea, hemorrhaging, and vomiting followed by coma and bruises under the skin.

Only 2 of the original 58 affected had recovered while 12 remained in critical and 27 in stable condition. Medical experts had not seen any evidence that the illness was spreading or signs of an epidemic.

The cause of the illness was a mystery although it seemed clear that all of the cases were associated with the butchering of sick pigs or sheep. Because of this factor, health officials suspected some type of bacterial infection is involved. One possibility being considered was that the illness may be caused by streptococcus suis (S suis), a bacteria typically spread by pigs.

Soon, however, the number of deaths jumped to 24 and then to 31, while the number of confirmed cases of the illness climbed to 152. There are now 27 people in critical condition. Only seven patients have been released.

While it still appears that the disease is confined to those who handled or touched sick or dead pigs, and may very well be S suis as originally suspected, health officials and infectious disease experts are puzzled by the size of the outbreak.

In the past, S suis outbreaks in humans have been very small. In addition, only people who had contact with infected animals and had open wounds seemed to have been affected. People who ate the pork have not gotten sick.

The size of the outbreak may mean that the S suis bacterium may have mutated into a more virulent form. The number of victims, however, may indicate that another cause is involved.  Between 1968, when the first recorded cases occurred in Denmark, and now, only about 200 cases of S suis had been reported.

The Chinese Ministry of Agriculture is reporting that a vaccine should be available and rushed to the affected area within a week.  At present, China’s Health Minister has told the media that the “epidemic is…under control.” No human-to-human transmissions have been reported.

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