March 13, 2008

HK closes all primary schools as flu claims three lives

Six outbreaks at schools, a hospital and a nursing home since March 6

By Caryn Yeo

ALL kindergartens and primary schools in Hong Kong have been ordered closed for two weeks from today, after three children died from what has been described as influenza-like symptoms.

The move, announced late yesterday, followed a decision earlier in the day to shut one school where several pupils fell ill and one boy died on Tuesday.

In separate cases, a two-year-old boy died last month and a three-year-old girl died last week, also after developing flu symptoms.

Hong Kong has been hit by a flu outbreak that has landed many in hospital or seeking treatment. Reports said health officials have confirmed at least six outbreaks at schools, a hospital and a nursing home for the elderly since March 6.

News of the latest death clearly left many Hong Kongers anxious, bringing to mind memories of the 2003 Sars nightmare.

Adults and children were seen going out wearing face masks yesterday, just as they did during Sars, which left almost 300 dead in Hong Kong and spread to other countries, including Singapore.

The Hong Kong government said a team of experts will investigate the recent deaths and assess the risk of the new outbreak.

It will be headed by Hong Kong University microbiology professor Yuen Kwok Yung, one of the key investigators during the Sars outbreak.

The closure of schools is the first since Sars and was announced by Secretary for Food and Health York Chow.

'We will monitor the incident on a day-to-day basis to see what the trend is,' he said, pledging to reveal any findings as soon as possible.

It was the death of seven-year-old Law Ho-ming on Tuesday that prompted fears that the outbreak had worsened. He was admitted to hospital last week in a semi-conscious state.

Five other pupils from the school are in hospital with similar symptoms, but were reported to be in stable condition.

Their school was the first to be shut yesterday, as the authorities pondered whether to bring forward the Easter holidays and close other schools.

Centre for Health Protection controller Thomas Tsang told reporters that he was 'very concerned' about the deaths.

Samples from the children had tested positive for influenza A, he said. No link has been made yet between the deaths, officials said.

Even before the government decision to close schools last night, some parents and schools in the territory of seven million were not taking chances.

A spokesman for Tsing Yi Kindergarten told The Straits Times that it had decided to close as a number of pupils and staff had developed flu symptoms.

The YL Public Middle School Alumni Association Primary School also decided to close as a precaution.

'Last week, we had 32 students apply for sick leave, and the number of students applying... jumped to 85 on Tuesday and 99 on Wednesday,' vice-principal Chan Chi Hung was quoted by the South China Morning Post as saying.

Mrs Anne Chue, mother of a two-year-old boy and a three-year-old girl, told The Straits Times that she has been keeping her children home from kindergarten since Tuesday.

'After Sars, most parents are taking all the precautions they can,' she said.

In Singapore, a Health Ministry spokesman said the ministry had been in contact with the public health authorities in Hong Kong.

The spokesman said: 'We understand that the Hong Kong authorities have determined that the illness is due to influenza and the strain isolated is one of the circulating human seasonal influenza strains (A/H3).

'Our ongoing influenza surveillance in Singapore has not shown any unusual increase so far.'

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