With the public health system still recovering from the strain of the SARS epidemic, the central government is facing a new challenge with rapidly-spreading schistosomiasis.
According to Ministry of Health statistics for 2002 more than 810,000 Chinese were afflicted with the disease,but the current number might be over 1 million, said Zhou Xiaonong, deputy director of the Shanghai-based National Institute for Parasitic Disease Control and Prevention.
Carried by freshwater snails, acute schistosomiasis is a parasitic disease that attacks the blood and liver in humans. Over time it can be fatal. Chronic patients, who account for most who contract the disease, can experience high fever, weakness of the limbs and severe stiffness of the joints.
Following the flood disaster along the Yangtze River in 1998, the disease began to spread quickly in some regions along the river, Zhou told China Daily in a telephone interview yesterday.
The majority of the seven regions where the disease is not being effectively controlled are located along the Yangtze and include Central China's Hubei, Hunan, and Jiangxi provinces and East China's Jiangsu and Jiangxi provinces.
The other two regions are Southwest China's Yunnan and Sichuan provinces where the disease exists in mountainous areas, Zhou added.
There are 3.52 billion square metres of snail grounds in the seven provinces with a population of about 65 million people.
Meanwhile, the number of acute schistosomiasis patients has been rapidly increasing this summer and if effective measures are not taken immediately an epidemic could break out in parts of Yangtze River Valley, said Wang Liying, an endemic and verminosis division director with the Diseases Control Department of the Ministry of Health.
A 1992 schistosomiasis control project supported by a loan from the World Bank from has basically been finished since 1998, said Wang.
About 1.6 billion yuan (US$193 million) from the World Bank loan and governmental investment was used to finance the project, but upon completion investment was sharply reduced in some areas, Wang noted.
Presently, the annual investment of governments at various levels is less than 70 million yuan (US$8.4 million).
Joint efforts urged to fight against schistosomiasis
In addition to investing more money, the central government should establish a special office under the State Council to comprehensively guide and strengthen the control work with pooling efforts from various departments to fight the disease, Wang said.
"It is far from enough to only depend on the health departments to fight against the epidemic, which needs joint efforts from different departments such as agriculture and water conservancy," he added.
According to the instruction of Vice-Premier Wu Yi at a national health work conference last month, the Ministry of Health is currently drafting a programme for battling the disease.