China has said that a total of 294 000 children had fallen ill from consuming dairy products tainted with the industrial chemical melamine, with 154 of them still in serious condition.
In a statement on its website, the health ministry also indicated the number of dead may rise from the four previously announced, saying that six deaths since September 10 may be linked to the consumption of melamine-laced milk.
The health ministry's total number of children sickened amid this year's scandal was a more than five-fold rise from the government's previous figure given in September of 53 000.
"The use of Sanlu brand milk powder and other problem milk powders led to urinary tract problems in 294 000 children," the ministry's statement said. Of those, 51 900 had been admitted to hospital. It said 861 children remained in hospital and that 154 were "serious" cases.
Accusations of cover-up still rife
Melamine is a chemical normally used to make plastics, but it emerged in September that it had been routinely mixed into Chinese milk and dairy products to give them the impression of having higher protein content.
The scandal quickly became a global problem, with Chinese dairy products around the world recalled or banned after they were found to be tainted with the chemical. However no melamine-related deaths have been reported overseas.
Melamine can cause kidney stones if taken in excessive levels, and babies in China who were fed tainted milk powder suffered the worst because they consumed so much of the chemical.
Authorities had previously announced that four babies died from kidney failure after consuming tainted milk powder this year. Consumers in China began complaining about milk products in March this year, but local health departments failed to respond until September, leading to accusations of a cover-up.
The government has insisted extensive measures have since been taken to ensure melamine is no longer in China's dairy supply, and the health ministry said in Monday's statement that the worst was over.
Unclear how much more food is contaminated
"Through the intense efforts of health ministry departments, medical organs and masses of medical personnel over the past two months, the peak has passed," it said. "Every day the number of patients screened or treated is clearly dropping."
Premier Wen Jiabao has also repeatedly sought to reassure the world about the safety of Chinese food exports. "After the incident, we took prompt measures to work out regulations on product safety in the dairy industry," Wen said in October. We will use our actions and high quality of our food products to win the trust and confidence of Chinese people and people around the world."
However it remains unclear just how much of China's food is contaminated with melamine and other dangerous substances.
A few days after Wen's comments in October, it emerged that some Chinese eggs also had traces of melamine, with the chemical mixed into chicken feed to give it the appearance of higher protein content. The discovery of melamine in eggs raised concerns that it could be in many other Chinese foods, with the suspicion that it may have been mixed into other livestock feed.
Other Chinese foods have come under scrutiny for safety issues in recent years. Dumplings laced with pesticide have been discovered in Japan, while the Chinese and international media have reported on problems such as steroid-laced pigs and fish being fed antibiotics so they can survive in polluted water. – (Sapa, December 2008)
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