UN says Panama mystery disease is malnutrition

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PANAMA CITY, Oct 5 (Reuters) The UN has dismissed Panama's claims it is fighting a mystery respiratory illness that has killed at least 10 people, saying the deaths are linked to malnutrition.

The head of UNICEF in Panama, Fernando Carrera, said today that the illness, which local media have reported may have killed up to 50 people in the last two months, is a direct result of poverty among Panama's indigenous population.

Panama says epidemiologists are investigating an unknown adenovirus -- or respiratory virus -- that has hospitalised at least 67 people in the province of Ngobe Bugle, near Panama's border with Costa Rica.

The illness has primarily affected children between 2 and 4 years old, with symptoms including headaches, fever and breathing difficulties.

''These children have likely died because of a combination of poor nutrition and the infection,'' said Carrera, ''There is a virus, but it is not something rare. It is a virus that is known and that occurs each winter in the mountains.'' According to Carrera the death rate, based on government figures, is unlikely to vary greatly from previous years.

The government has been criticized for its handling of the case and is facing questions about how a country with one of the fastest growing economies in Latin America continues to experience such high levels of poverty.

''The indigenous population has always been abandoned by the government'' said opposition lawmaker, Enrique Garrido, ''Bolivia strongly backs its indigenous groups, why can Panama not do the same?'' REUTERS SBA AS0309

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