A mystery illness killed 17 people in China

An unknown illness has killed 17 Chinese farmers; more farmers are hospitalized with the same symptoms. The people infected with the unknown disease are reported to have handled sheep and pigs.

The symptoms of those 41 hospitalized include high fever, fatigue, nausea and vomiting. Doctors say, the disease is not similar to bird flu or SARS and is probably caused by bacteria carried by pigs. Health officials reported the illness could be a variant of the streptococcus bacteria, often found in pigs, reports BBC.

The symptoms cannot be spread from human to human, and those most at risk from animal carcasses are people with vulnerable, low immune systems, officials said.

Experts had expressed fears that pigs, which can also carry human influenza, could accelerate mutation of the bird flu virus into a form, which can be transmitted between people.

The symptoms reported "seem consistent" with streptococcus suis, said Bob Dietz, a spokesman for the World Health Organization's Western Pacific region in Manila.

"Of course we are concerned anytime we have a situation like this. We will continue to watch it closely," Dietz said.

China's ministries of Health and Agriculture have sent a joint team of experts to Sichuan to provide medical help and conduct an investigation, Xinhua, China's official news agency said.

Local governments as well as health and agricultural officials have set up special teams to try to investigate the illness.

China is sensitive to such public health threats after criticism of its handling of severe acute respiratory syndrome, which first emerged in the country's south in 2002.

The government was widely criticized for its slow response to pleas for cooperation and information about the disease, which killed nearly 800 people worldwide before subsiding in July 2003, reminds the AP.

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