BUTUAN CITY (UPDATE) -- The Department of Health (DOH) in Caraga region has declared a food poisoning outbreak after over 1,600 of the region's school children fell ill after eating tainted candies.
DOH-Caraga Director Dr. Jose Llacuna, Jr. made the announcement Saturday afternoon.
As of 4 p.m., the Health Management Support Service of DOH-Caraga reported 1,665 food poisoning cases in 9 health facilities in the provinces of Surigao del Sur, Surigao del Norte and Agusan del Sur.
Of this number, 339 are still being treated in health facilities, while 1,326 patients have been sent home or discharged.
The victims complained of stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting and headaches late Friday after consuming durian candies sold by ambulant vendors.
Speaking to dzMM, Llacuna said the regional DOH is now on code white, which means public hospitals are now on heightened alert.
Llacuna said it may take at least 3 days for the Food and Drug Administration in Tagum City to determine the specific substance which caused the food poisoning.
Nine men and women who sold the sweets from a van while the children were on their lunch break have been arrested, Surigao del Sur governor Johnny Pimentel told Agence France-Presse.
Police are investigating whether the sweets were expired or were deliberately laced with poison, Pimentel added.
"The suspects had a plan to sell only to school children. They went around nine towns the whole day selling candies," he said.
The group denied to police that they meant to poison the children, he added.
Pimentel said police were still trying to establish why the group had traveled some 300 kilometers (190 miles) from their home province to sell the sweets.
The southeastern region is the country's main producer of durian and the foul-smelling fruit is transformed into a myriad of food products including confectionery, ice cream and coffee.
Poor enforcement of food safety regulations has been blamed for past cases of food poisoning in the Philippines, an impoverished nation of 100 million people. -- with reports from Rodge Cultura, ABS-CBN News Caraga and Agence France-Presse