BEIJING (AP) - China has dramatically raised the toll from its tainted milk powder scandal, saying six babies likely died and 300,000 were sickened, figures that back up months of complaints from parents and show the government is beginning to acknowledge the scale of the crisis.
The scandal has been met with public dismay and anger, particularly among parents who feel the government breached their trust after their children were sickened or died from drinking infant formula authorities had certified as safe.
The Health Ministry's revised death toll is twice the previous figure, while the new count of 294,000 babies who suffered urinary problems from drinking contaminated infant formula is a six-fold increase from the last tally in September.
"Most of the sickened children received outpatient treatment for only small amounts of sand-like kidney stones found in their urinary systems, while some patients had to be hospitalized for the illness," the ministry said in a statement late Monday.
The latest statistics show that China's communist leaders are slowly acknowledging the scale of China's worst food safety scare in years. During such crises, the government often deliberately releases information piecemeal in part to keep from feeding public anger.
Thousands of parents have been clamoring for compensation for their sickened and dead children. The release of the figures raises the question of whether the Health Ministry is getting closer to finalizing a compensation scheme.
"The new figures are more realistic and objective than previous figures. We knew the previous ones could not have been accurate," said Chang Boyang, a Beijing lawyer who has provided legal assistance to families of children who became ill.
Four of the six deaths were recorded in the provinces of Jiangxi, Zhejiang, Guizhou and Shaanxi, and the other two were in Gansu province in the northwest, the ministry said.
The ministry said it investigated 11 possible deaths related to melamine-tainted milk and ruled five of them out. Melamine poisoning could not be ruled out in the remaining six cases, it said but gave no further details or explanation. It also did not make clear whether three earlier reported deaths were included in the new total.
The ministry said it checked into babies who died before Sept. 10, and that between then and last Thursday, no new deaths were reported.
The ministry declined phone interviews Tuesday and did not respond to faxed questions from The Associated Press.
There are other families who say their children died from drinking milk powder made by Shijiazhuang Sanlu Group Co., the dairy at the center of the crisis, but their cases were apparently still not classified as caused by tainted formula.
Without the official verdict, families fear they will be refused compensation promised by the government through the Health Ministry, which has also said it would provide free medical treatment for children sickened by tainted milk. Some parents expressed pessimism about receiving compensation promised by the government.
"I've talked with a lawyer and at first we wanted lots of compensation, but later we agreed to settle for a much smaller amount, although I wasn't happy. But now even that seems impossible as nobody has ever talked to us about it," said apple farmer Tian Xiaowei of Shaanxi province, whose year-old boy died in August.
"The economy in this country is bad now, I don't think the Communist Party will take care of our problem," Tian said.
The health bureau of Ru'nan county where he is from first ruled his son died from tainted milk powder, but a higher authority said there was no proof his death was linked to infant formula, Tian said.
The attorney Chang said there was still no word of compensation, and the group of volunteer lawyers he belongs to was considering starting a fund to help the victims' families, with contributions from all sectors and the public.
"I assume that the government is worried about the situation of the dairies and is afraid the companies may fall if they have to pay for the compensation amid the current financial crisis," Chang said. "The government may be worrying about the interests of the companies first."
The scandal was first reported in September, but the government has said that Sanlu, the dairy, knew as early as last year that its products were tainted with melamine and that company and local officials first tried to cover it up.
Like a number of major dairies, Sanlu was said to have excellent quality controls that allowed it to enjoy a government-granted inspection-exempt status.
The scandal highlighted the widespread practice of adding melamine - often used in manufacturing plastics - to watered-down milk to fool protein tests. Melamine is rich in nitrogen, which registers as protein on many routine tests. Though melamine is not believed harmful in tiny amounts, higher concentrations produce kidney stones, which can block the ducts that carry urine from the body, and in serious cases can cause kidney failure.
The crisis prompted authorities to announce a complete overhaul of the country's dairy industry to improve safety. The scare badly hit dairy exports, which fell 92 percent in October from the previous year as snags in the supply chain forced a loss in orders, and importers became wary of Chinese food products, the official China Daily newspaper reported.
Associated Press researchers Chi-Chi Zhang, Xi Yue and Yu Bing
contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)