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Rare disease haunts poor Tibet plateau villagers

October 23, 2008

By Lucy Hornby
October 21, 2008

BEIJING (Reuters) - A rare condition still haunts the poorest
villagers on the Tibetan plateau but improvements in nutrition and
grain handling could help eradicate it, the head of a Belgian group
fighting Kashin-Beck disease said on Tuesday.

The poorest farmers tend to be most susceptible to the disease, which
causes painful swelling in joints and retards limb growth, resulting
in dwarfism in the most severe cases.

China's Ministry of Health estimates about 2 million people have it,
out of the 30 million who live in areas where it is endemic.

A multi-year study showed lower incidences in children who took
multivitamin and mineral supplements, said Francoise Mathieu,
director of programs for the Kashin-Beck Disease Foundation, which
has been working in valleys around Lhasa where the disease is common.

"It's been very encouraging and we hope to see more signs of
improvement," she told reporters in Beijing.

First identified by doctors stationed with Cossack units by Lake
Baikal, Kashin-Beck disease was once found in an arc from Siberia,
through northeast China and down into the southwest.

Advances in nutrition mean it has largely disappeared, except in
remote valleys around Lhasa and elsewhere on the plateau.

Risk factors include lack of selenium and other nutrients in the
diet, fungi that grow in grains and farming in mineral-poor soil.

In addition to the nutritional study, the foundation is encouraging
farmers to treat seeds and store grains in clean, dry and ventilated
rooms to avoid fungal growth.

"I think they live with much more suffering than we could," said
Philippe Goyens, a doctor who said severely deformed victims continue
to farm and work in remote villages.

Better roads and more trade outside the valleys could help improve
diets and reduce incidence of the disease, Mathieu said.

Last summer, the head of the Tibetan regional government said it had
relocated 1,000 households affected by the disease, adding that
people were only moved if they were willing, according to the Xinhua
news agency.

Another 77,000 people in endemic areas in the Aba prefecture, in the
high grasslands of Sichuan province, will be relocated by 2013,
Xinhua said this spring, citing a local official.

(Editing by Paul Tait)
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