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[BEIJING] The 2008 outbreak of kidney damage in children exposed to contaminated milk in China is being blamed by critics on an aggressive rewards system for science-based innovations, and inadequate safety evaluations.

Six infants died and more than 300,000 fell ill during the outbreak. The Chinese government subsequently traced the cause to dairy products contaminated with melamine — an industrial chemical that increases milk's apparent protein content. Infant milk powder produced by Sanlu Group in China's Hebei Province was the main culprit.

Some 12 per cent of the affected children still suffer from urinary tract abnormalities, according to a study published last month (23 March) in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) by Chinese scientists from Peking University's Institute of Reproductive and Child Health.

The results of the research have lead to calls for further follow-up studies, even though most of the affected children examined in this study showed no long-term kidney abnormalities.

"It's still unclear about all the adverse effects [contaminated milk had] on the growth of the affected children," Lu Jia-hai, a researcher from Sun Yat-sen University's School of Public Health, told SciDev.Net

But the study has also prompted concerns about pressures put on Chinese scientists to come up with novel technical processes, and to implement them quickly without performing adequate safety tests. This, say some researchers, could lead to health hazards and could have been partly responsible for the 2008 infant milk scandal.

The critics pointed out, for example, that in January 2008, Sanlu Group's infant milk formula — then a best-seller on the Chinese dairy market — won the second prize in the prestigious National Science and Technology Progress Awards.

The incident with Sanlu Group's infant milk formula highlights some of the obstacles that high quality research faces in China, particularly the reward-based appraisal system, said Tang Jin-Ling, a researcher with The Chinese University of Hong Kong, in a written CMAJ commentary on the new study.

Tang said that the Chinese science community is obsessed with rewards and prizes at all levels. But he warned that "it is difficult to assess the importance and reliability of a piece of research soon after its completion," and added that "giving away prizes too quickly may result in mistakes, as in the case of Sanlu infant milk".

Another critic, Wang Zhao — a medical researcher from Tsinghua University — said that current methods of dealing with academic fraud are not strict enough, particularly given the recent rapid increase in China's research budget, scheduled to grow by eight per cent in 2010 alone.

"Compared with ten years ago, the evaluation system is much better," said Wang. "But a stronger regulation is needed to prevent cases like Sanlu from happening again in the future."

Link to full paper in the Canadian Medical Association Journal

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