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Afghanistan Closes Schools Due to Increasing H1N1 Cases

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The Afghan government has closed the country's schools and universities for most of November in response to an increased number of H1N1 flu cases. Since July, officials have diagnosed nearly 350 people with the virus. There have been a total of 772 confirmed cases, and 10 people have died.

Afghan officials say most of the flu cases have been in Kabul, Parwan and the provinces of Herot, Kandahar, Ningrahar and Bamayan.

Afghanistan's Health Minister Dr. Sayed Mohammad Amin Fatemi says only Afghans so far have died from the virus.

He says the basic reason for the deaths has been because the victims went to treatment centers too late. He says most of the foreigners with the virus have been with the NATO forces, and they were able to start their treatments early, which helped their chances for survival.

The United Nations World Health Organization representative for Afghanistan, Peter Graass, says that despite the last eight years of medical improvements in the country, there is still a lot more work left to do.

"Somewhere between 60 and 70 percent of all Afghans have access within two hours of walking or traveling to basic health services, so that means that under the best of circumstances we have a very sizable - still very sizable - proportion of the population that is basically missing out," he said.

He says the Afghan health services are reasonably prepared to deal with the H1N1 outbreak. But he adds that officials believe the actual number of cases is much higher and are preparing for scenarios in which a fourth of the country contracts the flu virus.

Graass says his organization is still waiting on the first 11 million doses of the vaccination.

"Half a million [doses] will come to Afghanistan, so almost 20 percent of the total will come to Afghanistan, so that is good news for us," he said. "And the [Afghan] government is working very hard with its partners on the deployment plan."

The H1N1 virus has differed from normal, seasonal influenza in that it has persisted during the summer months and affected relatively healthy people under the age of 65. The WHO says most people recover without hospitalization.

Last week, the WHO announced that the H1N1 virus has become the dominant flu strain in the world. According to numbers available in late October, there have been more than 440,000 laboratory confirmed cases of H1N1 influenza and more than 5,700 deaths reported to the U.N. agency.