Beijing, Dec.2 : In a major revision of numbers, China's Ministry of Health has acknowledged that nearly 300,000 children became sick after consuming milk tainted with the toxic plastic melamine.
According to the ministry's web site, this casualty figure is probably the largest the country has ever experienced.
The ministry said in a statement late Monday that authorities across the country found that 294,000 babies had suffered from urinary problems after consuming milk powder tainted with melamine.
"Most of the sickened children received outpatient treatment only for small amounts of sand-like kidney stones found in their urinary systems, while a part of the patients had to be hospitalized for the illness," the statement said.
A statement further said the abnormalities" occurred after drinking formula milk from Sanlu, the company most seriously affected, and other brand names.
Previously the government said that just over 50,000 babies had received hospital treatment for kidney stones.
It also said that six babies had died. It said five other deaths had been investigated, but melamine had been ruled out as a cause.
The melamine scandal was exposed in mid-September, and deeply damaged not only the milk industry but also the government's reputation for ensuring food safety.
The plastic had been sold as "protein powder" and mixed into milk at collecting stations all over China, because it improved the protein readings of poor quality or watered down milk.
Some doctors had been aware for months of the problems affecting formula milk, and Sanlu itself had confirmation on August 1, but was ordered not to issue a public statement in advance of the Olympic Games.
Eventually, the government's hand was forced by the New Zealand government, which had been informed by the dairy giant Fonterra, a joint-owner of Sanlu, and a growing number of reports in China's own media which did not say which company was responsible.
Li Fangping, one of a number of lawyers representing parents of children affected, said the new figures sounded accurate but probably did not include children affected by illnesses other than kidney stones, such as inflammation of the urethra or blood disorders.
Other figures released today show that Chinese dairy exports have fallen by more than 90 per cent since the scandal broke, after a number of countries banned the use of Chinese milk powder. Egg exports were also affected after traces of melamine were found.