LHASA, Sept. 21 (Xinhua) -- Tibetan farmer Nyima Tsering says he loves rice, not because it adds variety to his barley-dominated diet, but also because it comes for free and cures his families' joint pain.
A resident of Banbar county in southwest China's Tibet autonomous region, Nyima Tsering started receiving rice subsidies 2003 as part of a project to fight Kashin-Beck Disease (KBD), a chronic bone disease that is rampant in the area.
"None of my three children have been diagnosed with KBD, while other patients in my family said their joint pain has been alleviated," he said.
The county where Nyima Tsering lives has been hit the worst by disability-causing KBD, but local officials said they have found that rice consumption helps to control the disease.
By encouraging residents to replace highland barley with rice as a staple food, authorities have cut the number of new KBD cases reported in Banbar since 2000.
KBD mainly affects children between the ages of 7 and 12, causing joint deformation, pain and disability in serious cases. A 1999 survey indicated that half of the population of some villages in Banbar had been affected by the disease.
"The disease has been a major cause of poverty here, as many farmers are unable to work after developing KBD symptoms," said Shilok, vice head of the regional health department.
Although its exact cause has yet to be identified, experts suspect that large amounts of mycotoxin in locally-grown barley, selenium deficiencies and drinking water contamination may be behind the disease's spread.
However, a government-funded project launched in 2000 has seen hundreds of tons of free rice delivered to families with KBD patients and local schools every year.
"Although rice is new to many Tibetan residents, they have cheerfully welcomed the government's offer, as it complements the meager local barley harvest," said Deng Youmin, vice Communist Party of China (CPC) secretary of Banbar.
Since local soil and water quality is suspected to have contributed to the KBD breakout, officials said they have relocated some villages and improved water supplies in some others, although rice supplements have proven to be the most cost-effective solution for villages that cannot afford resettlement.
The project has seen the number of patients suffering from KBD drop to less than 13 percent of population in Banbar, Deng said, citing a survey conducted in March.
Zhou Lingwang, an official at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said the successful experiment in Banbar has "offered precious insights for other KBD-affected Tibetan areas."
China has pledged to eliminate KBD before 2015. The disease has been spotted in 15 Chinese provinces and autonomous regions, including Sichuan, Qinghai and Heilongjiang, affecting 20 million people.
A package of policies, including village relocation, adolescent nutrition enhancement and the introduction of vegetable plantations, has seen success in curbing the spread of the disease.