Melamine Cases Surge in China

China’s Health Ministry says many more children were sickened by melamine-tainted milk products than previously reported.

Melamine Cases Surge in China 305 Parents wait with their babies in a children's hospital in Beijing on Dec. 2, 2008.
AFP Photo

HONG KONG—China’s Health Ministry says the number of infants sickened by melamine-tainted milk formula produced by the Sanlu Group has reached 294,000, up from the 53,000 previously reported.

It said 51,900 children had been hospitalized since September, with 861 still hospitalized and 154 of those still in serious condition.

The ministry said that authorities in China conducted 22.38 million examinations on infants in an effort to determine the extent of health problems caused by the contamination.

We just received electricity and don’t have televisions to watch the news, so we were unaware of this problem with the children."

Parent, Hubei province

Not enough done

But despite government efforts, parents around China have complained of insufficient efforts to monitor the situation and educate the public.

Zhao Liansheng, the parent of an infant sickened by melamine in Beijing, said the examinations represented only a fraction of China’s children.

“The check-ups only number in the 20 millions, but…Chinese infants under the age of three number more than 70 million, while children under 14 number more than 256 million. These data come from China’s national statistic bureau. So [the authorities] just examined 20 million and I worry that some of these may include repeat checkups,” Zhao said.

Zhao said that factoring in the possibility of repeated urban checkups means that more 70 percent of China’s children and infants remain unexamined.

“Twenty million is only one-third of 70 million. There are still many children and infants who need to be examined. If [the government] discovers a problem, they should deal with it immediately,” he said.

Education lacking

Education about the dangers of melamine contamination in China remains lacking, and in many of the country’s rural areas parents are only just learning about the threat facing their children.

Another parent whose child became ill from a melamine-tainted milk product, surnamed Li, said that the army hospital in Lanzhou, capital of the remote northwestern province of Gansu, is still taking in infants diagnosed with kidney stones.

“Many have only just brought their children to the Army hospital. The parents didn’t know the danger until recently because they are not well informed. They don’t have access to the Internet and they don’t watch TV,” Li said.

One resident of China’s central Hubei province, said villagers near his home in Jianli county don’t have access to information because of a lack of basic infrastructure.

“We just received electricity and don’t have televisions to watch the news, so we were unaware of this problem with the children,” he said.

Problems persist

Reporting was a key issue in the cover-up of kidney problems from formula made by the Sanlu Group, which were traced to the use of the plastic-making compound melamine as a protein substitute. The company first acknowledged the problems in September after receiving complaints as far back as March, according to the Health Ministry.

Officials at the World Health Organization have been critical of China’s response to the melamine scandal citing a fractured system that divides responsibility for safety among a host of agencies.

These include separate ministries for health, agriculture, and commerce, as well as the State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA), the State Administration of Industry and Commerce (SAIC), and the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection, and Quarantine (GAQSIQ), according to a report by the United Nations.

Melamine-tainted candy has been exported to countries throughout Asia and Europe. Over a dozen countries have banned dairy imports from China, while international food brands have withdrawn products with Chinese ingredients.

Despite a global outcry, melamine problems continue to spread. Last month, eggs sold in Hong Kong and several Chinese cities were found to contain high concentrations of melamine. Agriculture Ministry officials suspect the chemical was added to chicken feed.

Original reporting by Qiao Long for RFA’s Mandarin service. Translated by Chen Ping. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Written and produced in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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