At least 240 people, mainly children younger than 5 years old, have died from hand, foot and mouth disease from January to May as China enters a peak season of the epidemic, the Ministry of Health has said.
The peak will last until October but the infection commonly seen among toddlers can be easily prevented and treated with early detection and intervention, said Xiao Donglou, a division director of the ministry's disease prevention and control bureau.
According to official statistics the infection claimed more than 240 lives on the mainland in the first five months of the year.
The epidemic appeared to hit harder this year in terms of scale and severity, Xiao said.
From January to June last year, 132 deaths were reported.
An official tally showed China reported nearly 1.62 million HFMD cases in 2011, including 509 deaths.
"The infection is expected to maintain a relatively high prevalence this year and children attending nurseries, kindergartens and elementary schools are most vulnerable to the disease," he said.
In response, the ministry has devised clinical guidelines to help with a timely diagnosis and proper treatment of HFMD particularly at grassroots-level health institutions.
The ministry has distributed information and training materials, mainly at kindergartens, to help better track the infection and get timely medical intervention. Kindergartens and elementary schools are required to increase monitoring and preventive measures by carrying out morning checks and routine disinfection.
Kindergartens must report any HFMD cases upon detection to local health authorities to help avert the risk of secondary infections. Kindergartens with outbreaks could be closed temporarily.
Pang Xinghuo, deputy director of the Beijing Center for Diseases Control and Prevention, told China Daily several kindergartens in the capital had been temporarily closed after outbreaks were detected.
The capital has reported three deaths, all children under 5, from the infection, she said.
"All of them were diagnosed at the late stage and sent to private small clinics and their deaths could have been avoided," she told China Daily.
According to medical experts, children younger than 3 are at the greatest risk of HFMD and the infection usually starts with a light fever followed by blisters and ulcers in the mouth and rashes on the hands and feet.
The virus spreads via the digestive and respiratory systems and through close contact.
Zhao Min, a sales manager in Beijing, said she has received manuals on HFMD prevention and intervention from the kindergarten her 3-year-old son attends.
"Starting in May, I began to regularly disinfect his toys and keep him away from crowded public places like the shopping mall," she said.
There is no vaccine to specifically target the infection so good hygiene practices should be applied to prevent the disease, Pang said. Adults could get infected but usually show no symptoms.