Hand, foot and mouth disease kills 81 in Vietnam so far this year

A severe outbreak of hand, foot and mouth disease has killed 81 children in Vietnam since the beginning of 2011, and health officials there say tens of thousands more have been infected.

The World Health Organization reported that 10,000 of the roughly 30,000 confirmed cases of HFMD in Vietnam this year have occurred in children younger than three, according to AFP.

"It's a challenge to deal with it," Graham Harrison, the WHO’s acting representative for Vietnam, said, AFP reports. "It's certainly a significant increase on the previous two or three years."

HFMD is considered a common viral infection among children and infants. It causes fever and blister-like eruptions in the mouth, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC is working with Vietnam’s health ministry and the WHO to control the outbreak.

Harrison said it is as yet unclear why the outbreak has been so severe this year and was unable to explain why the vast majority of cases have occurred only in the south of the country, AFP reports. There tends to be a cycle to the severity of HFMD outbreaks, and similar problems have occurred in other Asian countries in the past decade, Harrison said.

HFMD has no specific treatment, but since it is commonly spread through unwashed hands or contact with virus-contaminated surfaces, Harrison said that the outbreak reinforces the need for good hygiene standards.

Vietnam’s Health Minister Nguyen Thi Kim Thien urged for more extensive public education about HFMD and how children can be better protected.

"We are trying to keep the death rate as low as possible," Thien said, the Vietnam News Agency reports.

Vietnamese officials are still deciding whether or not it is reasonable to officially declare the outbreak an epidemic.