Flu prompts 2-week school closure in Hong Kong

Mar 13, 2008 (CIDRAP News) – Hong Kong school officials made an abrupt decision yesterday to close all primary schools for 2 weeks, starting today, in an effort to block a rising wave of seasonal influenza.

The move, described as Hong Kong's first school closure since the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic of 2003, came after authorities reported outbreaks involving 184 people at 23 schools and kindergarten/child-care centers, according to an Agence France-Presse (AFP) report. Today brought 50 more reports of outbreaks involving 305 people at 27 schools, the story said.

The closure affects nearly 560,000 children at 1,745 primary schools and kindergarten/child-care centers, the Associated Press (AP) reported yesterday. Because the move was announced late Wednesday, some parents missed it and brought their children to school today, only to find buildings closed.

News agencies said three or four children have died of flu-like illnesses in the city in recent weeks. A World Health Organization (WHO) official said one child tested negative for flu, while two others had flu along with other illnesses, the AP reported.

Hong Kong Health Secretary York Chow said there have been no signs that the circulating flu strains are more virulent than usual, and therefore the government has not formally informed the WHO, according to AFP.

But he added, "We cannot wait for the figures to get bigger before we make any decision. We have to make certain assumptions that if there are now two deaths related to influenza . . . then we need to do something," the story said.

The closure is unrelated to H5N1 avian influenza, which occasionally turns up in wild birds in Hong Kong, news services said.

Chow said schools will be closed until Mar 28, allowing twice the incubation period for flu, according to AFP. Schools were scheduled to start their Easter holiday in a little more than a week, and he said starting the holiday sooner would help limit the epidemic and calm public fears, the AP reported.

One factor that fueled officials' concern about the epidemic was that five classmates of a 7-year-old boy who died Mar 11 were hospitalized with flu-like symptoms, Chow told reporters. The 7-year-old had both flu and encephalitis, the AP reported.

Peter Cordingley of the WHO's Western Pacific regional office welcomed the Hong Kong action, the story said. He dismissed suggestions that officials were overreacting, saying they were understandably anxious in light of their experience with SARS.

The Hong Kong move comes as a busy flu season in the United States is slowly winding down. US officials reported Mar 7 that flu activity was still widespread in 47 states, down from 49 states a week earlier.

See also:

Mar 7 CIDRAP News story, "Flu activity continues to slow, CDC reports"

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