13,000 babies in hospital for China milk scandal

The number of infants ill after drinking milk powder contaminated with an industrial chemical doubles.

A Chinese baby undergoes treatment at a hospital after taking tainted milk powder, in Hefei, eastern China's Anhui province on September 21, 2008.  China said nearly 13,000 children were in hospital after drinking toxic milk powder in a dramatic escalation of Beijing's latest safety scandal, as the World Health Organization questioned Beijing's handling of the crisis, premier Wen Jiabao appeared on state television promising to head off further incidents.    CHINA OUT GETTY OUT        AFP PHOTO *** Local Caption ***  321981-01-08.jpg
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BEIJING // The number of Chinese infants sick in hospital after drinking tainted milk formula has leapt to nearly 13,000 and Premier Wen Jiabao threatened harsh punishment for culprits in the latest blight on the "made-in-China" brand. The Health Ministry said the toll of children ill from milk powder contaminated with the industrial chemical melamine had risen from a previously announced total of 6,244, which included many who had left hospital, to 12,892.

Another 39,965 children had "received clinical treatment and advice" before being sent home. More than 80 per cent of the sick were aged under two. So far, four deaths have been blamed on toxic milk powder causing kidney stones and agonising complications, and 104 children are in a serious condition. Mr Wen visited hospitals in the national capital in a bid to reassure an anxious public that his government was acting.

"The public is worried, doctors are worried, and we're also worried," he told parents and staff, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency. "The most crucial point is that after a clean-up there can be no problems at all with newly produced milk products. If there are fresh problems, they must be even more sternly punished under the law." China's food quality watchdog has said it found melamine in nearly 10 per cent of milk and drinking yoghurt samples from three major dairy companies: Mengniu Dairy, the Inner Mongolia Yili Industrial Group and the Bright group.

By Saturday, Chinese consumers had claimed refunds for 304 tonnes of dairy products, the China Daily reported. Nitrogen-rich melamine can be added to watered-down milk to fool quality checks, which often use nitrogen levels to measure protein. The health ministry stressed that no cases of illness have been found related to liquid milk. Panicked parents have crowded China's hospitals and demanded redress since officials and the Sanlu Group, the country's biggest maker of infant milk powder, disclosed the threat.

Sanlu failed to publicly disclose the problem for at least a month, throughout August when Beijing hosted the Olympic Games, officials have said. The government has promised free treatment for struck children, but some parents said they worried about costs and long-term complications. Zhou Zhijun, a mother from south China's Hunan province, said she took her wailing, increasingly thin daughter to hospitals at least three times from June to late August before doctors diagnosed a kidney stone.

"All those visits and checks cost 20,000 yuan (Dh10,726), and I still don't know who will pay for that," she said, adding that her 15-month-old baby had drunk Sanlu milk powder. "Also what if there are complications and problems later? Who'll pay for that?" Other countries and regions have clamped down on China's milk products. Markets that have banned or recalled these products include Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan.