China: 6 babies may have died from tainted milk
By GILLIAN WONG,Associated Press Writer AP - Tuesday, December 2
BEIJING - China's Health Ministry said six babies may have died after consuming tainted milk powder, up from a previous official toll of three, and announced a six-fold increase in its tally of infants sickened in the scandal to nearly 300,000.
It was the first time since Sept. 21 that health authorities have revised the total number of babies sickened by milk powder adulterated with the industrial chemical melamine. The previous total was about 50,000.
The crisis has been met with public dismay and anger, particularly among parents who feel the government breached their trust after their children were sickened or died from drinking infant formula authorities had certified as safe.
The latest statistics show that China's communist leaders are slowly acknowledging the breadth of China's worst food safety scare in years. During such crises, the government often deliberately releases information piecemeal in part to keep from feeding public anger.
The ministry said in a statement late Monday that 294,000 babies across the country had suffered from urinary problems after consuming milk powder laced with melamine.
"Most of the sickened children received outpatient treatment only for small amounts of sand-like kidney stones found in their urinary systems, while some patients had to be hospitalized for the illness," the statement said.
Thousands of parents have been clamoring for compensation for their sickened and dead children. The release of the figures raises the question of whether the Health Ministry is getting closer to finalizing a compensation scheme.
Six babies had possibly died, the statement said, with four of the cases recorded in the provinces of Jiangxi, Zhejiang, Guizhou and Shaanxi, and the other two in Gansu province in the northwest.
There are other families who say their children died from drinking milk powder made by Sanlu, the dairy at the center of the crisis, but their cases were apparently still uncounted. These include cases in Henan, Shaanxi and in far western Xinjiang province.
"When the county health bureau first came to us, they said my child died because of the milk powder," said apple farmer Tian Xiaowei of Shaaxi province, whose year-old boy died in August. "But later when the case was reported to the district health authority, they said there's no proof that the death was linked with milk powder."
In Henan, Li Shenyi, the uncle of a 9-month-old girl who died of kidney failure in September, also said he had not been contacted by local health authorities on whether the child's death has been classified as caused by tainted formula.
Without the official verdict, families fear they will be refused compensation promised by the government through the Health Ministry, which has also said it would provide free medical treatment for children sickened by tainted milk.
"I've talked with a lawyer and at first we want lots of compensation, but later we agreed to settle for a much smaller amount, although I wasn't happy. But now even that seems impossible as nobody has ever talked to us about compensation," Tian said.
A Beijing lawyer who has provided legal assistance to families of children who became ill said there was still no word of compensation. He added there were likely even more deaths that had not been counted yet.
"I assume that the government is worried about the situation of the dairies and is afraid the companies may fall if they have to pay for the compensation amid the current financial crisis," said Chang Boyang. "I believe there may be more deaths because some of the parents might not even report the cases to the government."
The ministry said it investigated 11 possible deaths related to melamine-tainted milk and ruled five of them out. It did not give further details nor say whether the three earlier reported deaths were included in the new total.
The ministry said it checked into babies who died before Sept. 10, and that between then and last Thursday, no new deaths were reported.
By last Thursday, 861 babies were still hospitalized with kidney problems caused by contaminated milk powder, down from the previous week's figure of 1,041, the statement said.
The ministry declined phone interviews Tuesday and did not immediately respond to a faxed list of questions from The Associated Press.
The scandal was first reported in September, but the government has said that Shijiazhuang Sanlu Group Co. knew as early as last year that its products were tainted with melamine and that company and local officials first tried to cover it up.
Sanlu was among a number of major dairies said to have excellent quality controls that allowed it to enjoy a government-granted inspection-exempt status.
The scandal prompted authorities to announce a complete overhaul of the country's dairy industry to improve safety. It highlighted the widespread practice of adding melamine _ often used in manufacturing plastics _ to watered-down milk to fool protein tests. Melamine is rich in nitrogen, which registers as protein on many routine tests.
Though melamine is not believed harmful in tiny amounts, higher concentrations produce kidney stones, which can block the ducts that carry urine from the body, and in serious cases can cause kidney failure.
The scandal spread rapidly as melamine was found in other kinds of dairy products such as liquid milk, yogurt and chocolates. It prompted a string of recalls of Chinese-made milk and products containing milk in dozens of countries. Later investigations also discovered it was being added to animal feed after finding melamine-spiked eggs.
Associated Press researchers Chi-Chi Zhang, Xi Yue and Yu Bing contributed to this report.
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