The Chinese Health Ministry issued a nationwide alert on Saturday in an effort to control the outbreak of a virus which has killed 23 children in the east of the country and is spreading.

A statement released by the health ministry said it was taking urgent measures to prevent the spread of the infection, known as Enterovirus 71 (EV-71).

The intestinal virus is highly contagious and can cause fever, blisters in the mouth and a rash on the hands and feet which children are very easily susceptible to. In extreme cases, the virus can cause brain, heart and lung damage.

Local Communist Party and government officials are on high alert. Health authorities are urgently taking measures to prevent the disease and treat seriously ill children, the health ministry said in a statement.

Officials fear the virus has spread from eastern provinces to the south and have urged all victims to report all cases of the virus within 24 hours. The most affected city is Fuyang where 3,736 cases of EV-71 have been reported, reflecting a rise of 415 cases in the last 24 hours.

The Health Ministry said it expected infections to climb and peak in the summer months of June and July.

Health officials said there is no vaccine or specific therapy to cure the disease, but suggest taking care of one's hygiene by frequently washing hands and disinfecting areas.

The delay in announcing the virus has led to accusations of a cover-up by local authorities. The Chinese health ministry responded by rejecting charges that it failed to handle the situation properly, but blamed the delay on medical teams who had been trying to figure out what the illness was before making the official announcement.