GUANGZHOU - Medical malpractice is suspected of having caused at least 200 reported cases of hepatitis C infection in a community in Guangdong province.
The number infected in the township of Zicheng, Zijin county in Heyuan city, has not been confirmed by health authorities.
Many recall having injections at small clinics along Xiangshui street in the town before they were diagnosed with the infection. Some families have more than one member infected.
Experts have been organized to investigate, Yi Xuefeng, a provincial disease prevention and control official, said on Thursday.
"These cases were first identified before 2010, and the incident cannot be deemed an outbreak of the disease," Yi told Xinhua News Agency.
Hepatitis C has a long latency and can be transmitted in many ways. It is hard to trace the source of infections, said Shen Meidi, deputy director of Zijin county health bureau.
Hepatitis C is viral and is mainly transmitted through contact with contaminated blood, although it can also spread through sexual contact and from mother to child. Many infected people do not show symptoms, but infections can lead to cirrhosis of the liver.
Sixty-year-old Luo Huiyun was diagnosed with the infection at the Zijin County People's Hospital in March 2010, after she felt bloated in the stomach and had poor appetite. She was cured of the disease by June last year.
"I felt weak and couldn't work during the treatment," said Luo, who was engaged in farming before she became ill.
Luo said she had received injections at several clinics along Xiangshui street for minor illnesses before she tested positive for the virus.
Patients have also suffered a financial burden and discrimination. The treatment cost Luo about 80,000 yuan ($12,720), which included 48 shots of interferon, each shot costing 900 yuan.
Some patients even traveled to the provincial capital Guangzhou for hospital treatment while others had to settle for much cheaper herbal medicine.
The Zijin county authorities decided in January to include interferon as a refundable item in the local medical insurance program.
Luo Huiyun was refunded several thousand yuan for her treatment after a meeting organized by the county health bureau last month.
"At the meeting, we were told that we will be refunded half the amount of our medical bills for this illness incurred in 2011," Luo said, adding that more than 100 people with the virus attended the meeting.
Wang Shaoke, a local resident, said that because many people in his county were aware of the infectious nature of the disease but not how it was transmitted, there was fear and discrimination.
"After my wife was diagnosed with the infection, her co-workers would not work close to her," he said. "She does not eat with them. We ask our child not to reveal his infection for fear of discrimination from his schoolmates," he told Nanfang Metropolitan News.
Reports of the mass infection in Guangdong province came after 86 people were confirmed as infected with the hepatitis C virus in Henan and Anhui provinces late last year.