HANOI, Vietnam - The World Health Organisation said Monday it was "concerned" about an outbreak of a mysterious skin disease in central Vietnam which has killed 19 people, mostly children.
More than 170 people have fallen ill with the unidentified illness, which causes stiffness in the limbs and ulcers on victims' hands and feet that look like severe burns.
While the disease typically begins as a rash on the hands and feet, it can progress to liver problems and multiple organ failures.
Health workers say it responds well to intervention, but it's difficult to treat in the later stages.
Vietnamese health ministry tests have so far failed to pinpoint the cause.
Deputy Health Minister Thanh Long was reported as saying the disease is proving a challenge as if it is just an external skin disease, is should not be causing deaths and failures inside internal organs.
"We are concerned about this. WHO is very aware of this case," said Wu Guogao, the organisation's chief officer in Hanoi, adding Vietnam had not asked for help with an investigation into the outbreak.
The WHO has not been given access to any official reports on the issue.
"It is difficult to say the exact cause at this stage," he told AFP.
The disease appears to have been concentrated mainly in Ba To district in central Quang Ngai province and the WHO said it had not heard of similar outbreaks elsewhere in the country.
Local doctors said they were waiting for the results of a recent Ministry of Health probe.
"The results of the investigation (are) not yet available. Therefore, we don't know anything more concerning the disease," said doctor Dang Thi Phuong, director of Ba To district healthcare centre.
"As far as I know, the Ministry intends to invite foreign experts to the area to help us know more," she told AFP, adding that many of the victims were under 10 years old.
Media reports said about one in 10 of those infected had developed serious liver disorders, but said the infection does not appear to be highly contagious.
It was previously reported that Vietnam's health authorities are seeking foreign assistance to deal with a resurgence of a mystery skin infection that has already killed 19 people in the central region and terrified villagers.
The disease was first reported between April and December last year, with doctors unable to identify the cause and it has re-emerged in a mountainous district of Quang Ngai province.
One village was reported to be in a state of terror over the death of a resident, with 171 people reporting infections on palms and the soles of their feet.
The Nguoi Lao Dong (Labourer) daily said frightened residents had blocked access to Reu village.
They have reportedly laid branches across the path to the houses of infected people to try to isolate the outbreak by preventing people from getting out and 'spreading the disease'.
"A person died last week but only a few people came to the funeral because many were afraid a ghost would catch them and take them along with the deceased," the daily quoted villager Pham Van Khiem, 36, as saying.
Deputy Health Minister Nguyen Thanh Long, quoted by the Thanh Nien newspaper, said the Ministry would ask the World Health Organization and the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention experts to help investigate the cause of the disease.
He said officials were taking steps to reduce the mortality rate.
About one in 10 of those suffering from the condition had serious liver disorder, but the disease is not transmissible except by contact through cut skin, media reports quoted health officials as saying.
Some reports have raised the possibility that poisoning from chemical herbicides could be the root of the problem.
This is as the onset of the symptoms appear to be similar to the effects of a brand of herbicide commonly used to spray cassava fields.
This article contains reports from AFP and Reuters.