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Mystery Illness Kills at Least 17 Chinese
BEIJING -- An unidentified illness has killed 17 farmers and sickened 41 in southwestern China after they butchered sick pigs or sheep, China's official news agency said Sunday. Those affected had symptoms including high fever, fatigue, nausea and vomiting, and "became comatose later with bruises under the skin," Xinhua news agency said.

Over the past four weeks, 58 people from areas around the cities of Ziyang and Neijiang in China's southwestern Sichuan province were hospitalized with such symptoms, Xinhua said.

Seventeen of those hospitalized have died, while 12 are in critical condition, 27 are stable and two have recovered, it said.

A "preliminary probe found out that the affected farmers have butchered sick pigs or sheep" before falling ill, the report said.

It said that medical experts believe the illness "is not spreading further among humans," and that there were "no obvious signs of (an) epidemic."

Local governments as well as health and agricultural officials have set up special teams to try to determine the cause of the illness, the report said late Sunday night.

The report did not cite a suspected cause of the sickness, but authorities in Hong Kong has said earlier Sunday that Chinese authorities believe a bacterial infection might be responsible for the deaths.

World Health Organization spokesman Bob Dietz said the cases didn't appear to be related to bird flu, a viral disease that has killed at least 57 people in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia since 2003.

The victims in Sunday's report suffered from poisoning-related shock syndrome and were acutely infected, an unidentified worker at a hospital treating the patients said in a telephone interview aired on Hong Kong's Cable TV.

The son of one of the victims told Cable TV his father fell ill after slaughtering and eating part of a sick pig. The names of the son and victim were not given.

Pigs in the area had been infected with streptococcus bacteria, which is common in domestic animals, the hospital worker said. It was unclear if the sick sheep in the area were infected with the same bacteria.

Hong Kong's Hospital Authority has asked its hospitals to notify health authorities of any patients with the same symptoms as those seen in Ziyang, spokesman Raymond Lo said Sunday.

Hong Kong has been wary of diseases spreading from China since severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, was brought to the territory by a mainlander in 2003 and killed 299 people in Hong Kong.

Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc.

By Associated Press