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Flu Outbreak Prompts Hong Kong to Close Schools

Hong Kong health experts are investigating an influenza outbreak that has killed at least three children and sickened many others. Heda Bayron reports from Hong Kong that the government has closed all primary schools to contain the virus.

Parents, teachers and students struggled to cope Thursday morning after the government announced at the last minute that primary schools and nursery schools will be closed for two weeks, in an attempt to curb the spread of the flu virus. Some parents did not hear the news and sent their children to school or could not arrange child care.

At least three children have died after suffering flu-like symptoms in the past two weeks. The Center for Health Protection says at least 23 schools have reported outbreaks, affecting about 180 students and teachers.

Dr. York Chow, the city's health secretary, says it is necessary to protect half a million school children from contracting the flu.

"The percentage of young children getting influenza in this coming season is obviously seems to be higher than that of the adult group. The second, but I have to say not yet well substantiated situation, is the mortality," said Chow. "We cannot wait until the figure is getting bigger before we make any decision. We have to make certain assumptions that if there's now two mortalities related to influenza even before the peak comes up then we need to do something to minimize certain increase in numbers in the weeks to come."

Health authorities are trying to allay fears that a new disease is emerging or that there is a new strain of the virus. They say this outbreak could be part of the peak of the flu season in Hong Kong, which usually comes in March. World Health Organization officials are aware of the outbreak but say so far it appears to be a normal influenza virus.

Chow says a team of medical experts are investigating the deaths and the nature of the outbreak, which appears to be hitting children the hardest.

"At this moment… we do not have any evidence that there's significant viral change in terms of the virulence and the genetic make-up of the virus…. At the moment we are working very hard to see whether there are significant changes, any significant findings," said Chow.

The first two deaths were a three-year-old girl who was diagnosed with the H3N2 flu virus, and a boy who died Wednesday after suffering from flu-like symptoms.

Public hospitals have seen a surge in patients, many with flu-like symptoms. Admissions at emergency rooms rose 16 percent in past 10 days compared with the average in January and February. The government has offered 25 percent more overtime pay to public hospital staff.

The flu outbreak comes exactly five years after Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome paralyzed the city and killed 299 people. Many in the city accused the government of handling the SARS crisis poorly and allowing the disease to spread.

Some residents say Thursday's move to hurriedly close schools appears to be influenced by the experience in 2003.

"The whole thing feels like the SARS (experience) had some impact. The whole thing made them (the government) more cautious," says a resident. "In this case, I think they are only thinking of, 'what if two more kids died tomorrow and we are blamed?"

Infectious disease expert Dr. Lo Wing-lok says the public health sector is better prepared than pre-SARS days to deal with an outbreak.

"If we look at the time of SARS and now definitely there were improvements," says Lo. "For example, we have set up the Center for Health Protection, a coordinating center for various disciplines of health care, coordinating the Hospital Authority better with the Department of Health, coordinating them with universities and various experts better.… We have put in quite a few isolation rooms in our hospital system, more than a thousand now…. All these were not in existence before SARS."

While the city was far from showing the sort of panic seen during the SARS outbreak, shops reported brisk sales of medical face masks and antiseptic. In the crowded subway, some people were seen wearing masks, a reminder of the SARS days when millions of people in Hong Kong wore masks when venturing outdoors.