By Prak Chan Thul
PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Cambodia closed all its kindergartens and primary schools on Wednesday to prevent the spread of a deadly virus that causes hand, foot and mouth disease and has killed at least 55 children since April, a senior government official said.
Sixty-one cases had been identified as the Enterovirus 71 (EV-71), which has affected children between the ages of three months and 11 years.
The outbreak has raised concern in other parts of the region, such as Thailand and the Philippines. Children have tested positive in both countries for strains of hand, foot and mouth disease, although no deaths have been reported.
In Cambodia, 55 children are known to have died, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Most were younger than three years old and died within 24 hours of being admitted to hospital.
"After receiving report from some provinces about the rapid spread of hand, foot and mouth disease in schools, we don't have to wait two more weeks," Mak Van, Education Ministry Secretary of State, told Reuters.
He said the closures would be in force for 10 weeks. Schools had been due to close for holidays at the end of August.
The WHO, which has been helping Cambodia investigate the deaths, said on Wednesday it was concerned the closures could cause alarm. The authorities, it said, were able to contain the spread.
"We did not recommend the closing of nurseries and primary schools because that would create unnecessary public panic," WHO representative Sonny Krishnan said in an email.
"The HFMD caused by EV-71 is under control by the Ministry of Health and ...(it has) the capacity to contain it."
He said the authorities were monitoring the situation and no new cases had been confirmed.
Neighboring Thailand has closed 18 schools in Bangkok to try to prevent a spread of various strains of hand, foot and mouth disease, of which there have been at least 12,500 cases nationwide since the start of the year.
The Ministry of Public Health has drafted a surveillance plan to try to prevent the EV-71 strain from taking a hold in Thailand.
In the Philippines, health officials said two children had tested positive for the enterovirus, but not necessarily the deadly EV-71. The two came from different regions and neither had travelled recently outside the country.
"We are still awaiting the (lab) results," said Eric Tayag of the Department of Health. "They are not in the same neighborhood. They are less than eight and are doing all right now."
He said health officials had wanted to "alert the public that hand, foot and mouth doesn't have to come from other countries. We have them, except that we don't have the form of the disease. Most likely it's not EV-71, but the laboratories should tell us that better."
Chinese authorities on Sunday said hand, foot and mouth disease had killed 17 people and infected nearly 35,000 in central Hunan province since June, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
(Additional reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre in Bangkok and Rosemarie Francisco in Manila; Editing by Martin Petty and Ron Popeski)