Natural Health

Flu Outbreak Prompts Massive School Closures in Hong Kong

By: Madeline Ellis
Published: Tuesday, 18 March 2008
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The annual “spring break” will soon allow many American students an enjoyable reprieve from school. But in Hong Kong, more than a half million students have been forced to begin their Easter holiday early in order to help prevent the spread of influenza.

In what is being calling a “precautionary measure” to ease parents’ fears, Hong Kong’s government has ordered all kindergartens and primary schools to close for two weeks, affecting 559,019 students in 1,745 schools. “We hope such precautionary measures will help reduce the cross-infection of the flu virus in schools and the community,” Health Secretary York Chow said. “The closure would allow schools to be disinfected,” he added.

The school closings follow the recent deaths of four children. Even though two of the children tested positive for influenza A, the Health Department declined to cite influenza as the cause of death. The other two children suffered flu-like symptoms, but according to the department, tests have not yet confirmed the presence of influenza A.

Officials said that 30 classmates of one of the deceased students were also displaying flu-like symptoms and five others students have now been hospitalized. Chow reported them as being in “stable condition.”

Since March 6, health officials have recorded nine flu outbreaks in Hong Kong which have occurred in schools, a hospital ward, and a disabled residential home, affecting at least 532 people.

The Hospital Authority said that in order to cope with a surge in demand for public hospital services, it has earmarked HK$20 million ($2.6 million) to implement measures up to the end of April.

Chow said Yuen Kwok-yung will head a panel of scientists assembled to study the recent fatalities. Yuen Kwok-yung, professor in microbiology at the University of Hong Kong, helped study Hong Kong’s outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) four years ago which infected 1,755 people in Hong Kong and killed 299. In a recent press conference, Yuen Kwok-yung said the deaths will be investigated to see whether the virus is mutating and added, “We need to be careful but we don’t need to panic.”

While Hong Kong’s recent history of dangerous disease outbreaks is feeding fear among the people, scientists insist that evidence to support those fears simply does not exist. Medical expert Zhong Nanshan said that the deaths of children in Hong Kong were more likely caused by a viral infection.

Gregory Hartl of the World Health Organization said that only two of the children tested positive for the flu, and both had other diseases as well. And Peter Cordingley, spokesman for the World Health Organization’s Western Pacific region said, “At this time of the year, it’s a viral soup everywhere. There is nothing exceptional in what is happening in Hong Kong at the moment.”

In Hong Kong’s neighboring capital city of Guangzhou, more than 100 people displayed flu-like symptoms during the first 10 days of March. The municipal health bureau said a majority of them tested positive for influenza. Wang Yulin, a researcher with Guangzhou Center for Disease Control and Prevention said, “Nearly all patients are school children. Due to the peak flu season, more people will contract influenza in the second half of March.” So far, no deaths have been recorded in the Guangzhou province.

In a Beijing press conference, Li Changjiang, head of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, told reporters that China’s government will cooperate with its “Hong Kong counterparts to control this flu incident so it does not spread.” However, Changjiang did not say what actions might be taken.