Authorities remain baffled by the mysterious skin disease that has killed nearly 20 people and infected many others in Quang Ngai province though the Ministry of Health has sent two delegations to investigate.

Pham Hong Phuong, director of the Quang Ngai Province Department of Health, said the ministry has concluded it is palm dermatitis with liver problems. But he refused to provide further information about the ministry's conclusion or speculate about it.

But Dr Tran Hau Khang, director of the Hanoi-based Central Dermatology Hospital , who led both delegations, rejected the conclusion.

He told the People's Army newspaper that it is based merely on symptoms and the cause remains unknown.

Blood tests found the presence of the rickettsia bacterium in 14 out of 26 patients in Ba To District. It is known to cause typhus among other diseases.

Vietnam News called the office of the US's Center for Diseases Control in Hanoi only to be told to seek information from the ministry. But Vietnam News was unable to reach Minister of Health Nguyen Thi Kim Tien despite repeated efforts.

Experts speculate that it is not an infectious disease but is caused by arsenic.

The province has reported more than 176 cases since last year.

The province is assisting patients' families with 5 million VND each. Ba To District has decided to distribute 60 tonnes of rice to locals in areas hit by a fatal skin disease that has been linked to the consumption of mouldy grain.

Le Han Phong, chairman of the local People's Committee said that the rice will be divided amongst the people to replace the mouldy rice in their storerooms.

The Central Relief Fund donated 1 billion VND (47,600 USD) to the effort and the provincial Vietnam Fatherland Front gave1 million VND (48 USD) to each household with an affected member.-VNA