Health Minister Nguyen Thi Kim Tien on Aug. 15 asked local officials to further strengthen measures to curb the spread of Hand-Foot-Mouth disease (HFMD) in HCM City and neighbouring provinces.

The newly-appointed minister, chairing her first meeting on controlling the epidemic with health officials in the southern region, said that the HFMD situation has become more and more serious.

"The epidemic is now complicated. We don't have vaccines for preventing the disease. We are trying to keep the death rate as low as possible," she said, noting that southern provinces are hardest hit.

Tien also urged stronger propagation of information and instructions about the disease and ways to keep children safe from it.

According to HCM City Pasteur Institute, the number of HFMD infections has displayed a sharp trend in the southern region. Around 14,000 cases are recorded each year.

The HFMD death rate has also increased sharply recently, with 74 cases recorded last week. Tran Ngoc Huu, head of the institute, said the increase in number of infections as well as fatalities has been sudden.

"In just one week, from August 1 to 7, infected cases in the region were reported to increase by two and a half times compared with the whole year of 2010," Huu said.

This year, HCM City has reported the highest number of infections with more than 7,000 patients followed by the provinces of Dong Nai with 3,413 cases and Dong Thap with 2,015.

The rate of infections has been highest in Binh Duong province at 143 patients per 100,000 people.

Most of the provinces with high rate of infections are in HCM City 's neighbouring areas and nearly 90 percent of the patients are children below five years.

"With the current situation, we expect that preventing the spread of HFMD in the coming time is going to be very difficult. But, the number of infections has tended to reduce after a new treatment procedure was introduced by the Ministry of Health recently," Huu said.

Pham Viet Thanh, head of HCM City 's Department of Health, said they are trying their best to curb the epidemic by strengthening propagation as well as preventive work in co-ordination with district level health agencies.

He said that the city's health and education sectors have cooperated with each other to prevent the epidemic at schools. Nearly 70 percent of the children infected with the disease were in their communities, not in schools, he said, adding regular training courses had been held for local health officials./.