Last Updated: Thursday, 13 March 2008, 05:13 GMT
HK schools close amid flu fears
Hong Kong family wearing masks to protect them from bird flu
All kindergartens and junior schools in Hong Kong have closed early for their Easter holiday, after a flu-like illness killed three children.
The government described the move as a "precautionary measure" to ease parents' fears.
Almost 200 people had been affected, officials said. At one school, some 30 students showed flu-like symptoms.
Experts are working to identify the virus and assess whether it poses a broader threat.
But health officials played down fears of a return of the Sars (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus.
World Health Organisation spokesman Peter Cordingley said it appeared to be "regular seasonal flu", the Associated Press news agency said.
The kindergartens and junior schools will be closed for two weeks, affecting more than half a million children.
Hong Kong's health chief, York Chow, said the decision was made as the high rate of flu-like infections was expected to continue for weeks.
"We hope such precautionary measures will help reduce the cross-infection of the flu virus in schools and the community," he said.
The closure would allow schools to be disinfected, he said.
The move came after seven-year-old Law Ho-ming was admitted to hospital in a semi-conscious state, suffering from fever and flu. He died on Tuesday from encephalitis - swelling of the brain.
Five of his fellow students from the Ho Yat Tung Primary School remain in hospital, and more than 30 others are displaying flu-like symptoms.
Concerns have also been raised about two other recent child deaths attributed to flu variants.
Official records show that people in 25 other schools, a hospital ward and a disabled residential home are suffering from outbreaks of flu.
The school closure is the first caused by illness since 2003, when almost 300 people died in the territory from Sars.
The government has set up an expert team led by a University of Hong Kong microbiologist to identify the illnesses in question and assess the risk.
One scientist said it was too soon to tell if the current outbreak of flu was dangerous or not, reports the BBC's Vaudine England from Hong Kong.
Hong Kong's recent history of dangerous disease outbreaks is feeding fears now, but the scientists insist evidence to support those fears does not yet exist, our correspondent adds.
Flu Outbreak Closes Hong Kong Schools
By KEITH BRADSHER
Published: March 14, 2008
Vincent Yu/Associated Press
Students in a classroom at a primary school in Hong Kong waiting to go home on Thursday.
HONG KONG ― The Hong Kong government on Thursday closed all elementary schools and preschools in the territory a week early for Easter holidays after three children died amid an influenza outbreak, but insisted there was no sign that SARS or bird flu were involved.
The abrupt closing of the schools, announced late Wednesday night, prompted considerable alarm, with some people donning surgical masks in public as they had in 2003 during the outbreak of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome.
As the closing of the schools reminded investors of the last lengthy school closing during the SARS outbreak, the Hong Kong stock market plunged 4.79 percent on Thursday, performing worse than any other Asian stock market except India’s as stock markets across Asia declined.
Dr. York Chow, Hong Kong’s secretary for health and food, said at a news conference that he was erring on the side of caution in closing the schools for two weeks, and was risking his political career given that many parents were angered by suddenly having to figure out child care arrangements.
“What we are doing might be a little drastic, but is reassuring the community,” Dr. Chow said.
Dr. Kwok Ka-ki, a lawmaker who represents the medical sector, said that the shutdown was arbitrary and possibly unnecessary. He pointed out that Dr. Chow had said only the day before that he did not yet see a need to close the schools.
“The government is telling the people not to panic, but on the other hand is acting in panic,” he said.
Dr. Chow said that he had changed his mind and decided to cancel school for more than 550,000 students in part because he was concerned that investigators needed to figure out exactly why the three children died. At least two had influenza. In all, 184 cases of flu have been reported in recent days.
Dr. Chow said there was no evidence that the outbreak was caused by a new strain of influenza virus.
School systems in the United States sometimes close during seasonal influenza outbreaks, but typically wait until so many children and teachers have fallen ill that absenteeism is chronic and every child has already been exposed to the virus, said Dr. Arnold S. Monto, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan.
Hong Kong may be acting responsibly in closing schools earlier, he said. Malik Peiris, a Hong Kong University microbiologist, said that three common strains of influenza viruses are now circulating in Hong Kong: A(H1N1), A(H3N2) and influenza B. But he said there was no sign of bird flu, which is A(H5N1).
“Is it H5N1? Definitely not,” Mr. Peiris said.
The closing of the schools coincided with the fifth anniversary of a global alert from the World Health Organization that a new, flu-like ailment had appeared in Hong Kong and Hanoi ― a disease that turned out to be SARS. Within two months, 1,755 were infected in Hong Kong and 299 died.
Laboratories have identified A(H1N1) as the virus in some of the most serious cases of the current outbreak. Dr. Monto, of the University of Michigan, said H1N1 seems to particularly affect children and is readily transmitted in schools.
This winter, some cases have been found in Norway of A(H1N1) viruses that are resistant to Tamiflu, a powerful anti-influenza drug that doctors also use to treat suspected cases of bird flu.
Dr. Chow said that hospitals were using Tamiflu to treat influenza cases in Hong Kong, but said that there was little sign of Tamiflu resistance. To reduce the risk of resistance developing in the virus, Hong Kong makes Tamiflu only available by prescription and in limited quantities.
The incubation time for influenza viruses is typically about a week. So closing the schools for two weeks, through Easter, should be enough time to break transmission of the disease, Dr. Chow said.
Dr. Chow took office in October 2004, after his predecessor as Hong Kong’s top health official, Dr. Yeoh Eng-kiong, resigned following a government report that criticized his slow response to SARS.
Thursday morning, Mabel Hui and her daughter, Ng Seen-yi, 7, both wore surgical masks and Ms. Hui carried a packet of extra surgical masks as they walked hand in hand to a day care center that remained open.
“I only learned of the school closure today on television,” Ms. Hui complained. “It is a major inconvenience since I have to go to work.”
Seen-yi, voicing a conscientiousness that is remarkably common among Hong Kong pupils, said that she was disappointed not to be in school.
“I don’t like not being able to go to school since I really wanted to take a test today ― I had studied hard for it,” she said. “It is boring not to see my classmates.”
Hilda Wang contributed reporting from Hong Kong.
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