Chinese authorities are denying reports that at least 26 children have died from a mysterious illness in the east of the country while local media accuses the Government of covering up an epidemic.

Newspaper and internet reports from Shandong province say that "many" children are dead and hundreds of others have fallen ill from a mysterious illness that has swept through Linyi city since late April.

"The reports on the Internet are pure rumour, this illness is a viral infection of the intestines that commonly occurs in infants and children in the summer and autumn months," the Shandong Health Bureau said on its website yesterday.

The bureau was responding to an internet report that said at least 26 children had died in Linyi between April 29 and May 11.

Medical authorities in Linyi said the deaths were caused by an outbreak of "hand-foot-mouth disease" which had infected up to 292 children in the city at that time, the Shanghai Morning Post reported.

Hand-foot-mouth disease is a viral infection that usually begins in the throat. It is a relatively common infection caused by the Coxsackie virus, according to the US National Library of Medicine.

The Shanghai Morning Post blamed health officials for failing to inform the public of the disease leading to panic in the city.

Parents were refusing to allow their children out of doors and avoiding the consumption of beef or lamb, believing the illness was linked to foot-and-mouth disease that affects livestock, the newspaper said.

The Linyi health bureau only began informing media of the "hand-foot-mouth disease" on Friday, after panic had spread to many households, it said.