Tuesday November 10, 2009




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1027 Swine flu panic shuts down 2,000 schools [Iraq]--Panic over the possible spread of H1N1 influenza has prompted the closure of more than 2,000 schools in Iraq, according to officials.

Education Minister Khudhair Al-Khuzaie said the unauthorized closure of schools was “illegal and unprofessional” and blamed “exaggerated media reports that have created such a panic”.

“Over the past week, we diagnosed four cases of H1N1 influenza among school students in the southern province of Kut, then the number increased to 25 cases and that prompted us to quarantine and shut down the school [where the cases were detected],” said Ihsan Jaafar, a senior Health Ministry official.

A few days later, other cases were confirmed in six Baghdad schools. “We’ve also closed them and that brings the total number of schools closed based on decisions issued by the Health Ministry to seven,” Jaafar told IRIN.

“Unjustified panic” had prompted some officials in southern Iraq to close schools where no H1N1 cases had been detected, a measure “unacceptable to the Health Ministry,” Jaafar said.

On 20 October, two local officials in the southern provinces of Thi Qar and Kut said that nearly 2,500 schools and kindergartens would be closed to prevent the disease from spreading.

Muthana Hassan Mahdi of Kut education directorate said a five-day precautionary shutdown had been in force since 21 October in 950 schools and kindergartens.

Meanwhile, Hadi Al-Riyahi, a local health official, said 1,477 schools would be closed in Thi Qar for 10 days from 22 October.

Kut is 160km and Thi Qar is 320km south of Baghdad.

Precautionary measures

Schools should only be closed for a week if a teacher and 2-3 students have the disease, Jaafar said. Those infected would be quarantined and the school sterilized. Students and infected students' families would be closely monitored, he added.

Tamiflu stocks were sufficient for 300,000 cases; another batch of 150,000 doses was expected in the next few days, he said.

According to the Health Ministry, the total number of confirmed H1N1 cases in Iraq is 523, of whom 113 are Iraqis and the rest foreigners, including members of the US forces. The death toll stands at three.

Education Minister Al-Khuzaie said overcrowding due to a shortage of school buildings represented an increased risk factor. He said US$4 billion was needed to build more than 4,500 new schools to ease overcrowding in Iraq’s roughly 19,000 schools.



1027 Swine flu risk for Cairo’s overcrowded schools [Egypt]--The Egyptian ministries of health and education have ordered all schools in Cairo to halve the number of children in each class to mitigate the possible spread of H1N1 influenza - no small challenge in this overcrowded city of 20 million.

The resulting uncertainty has led schoolchildren to attend classes on three alternate days a week instead of six under a long-running double-shift system designed to ease overcrowding.

“I go to school on the second shift on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday now,” Toqa Ali, 13, a student at Abdullah Ibn Rawaha School in the Imbaba area of Cairo, told IRIN. She said she used to have up to 80 children in her class but there were now around 25 as children were attending on alternate days and some were staying at home for fear of catching H1N1.

Toqa said she and many other children wore surgical masks in play time but tended to take them off in classrooms, which now have the windows open and fans on most of the time.

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), in conjunction with the Health Ministry, has run an extensive awareness campaign with TV advertisements, public service announcements and awareness kits.

“We are distributing awareness kits in all schools in Egypt on avian flu and H1N1. In fact, we already had a distribution network set up for avian flu so now we are just adding H1N1,”said Hala Abu Khatwa, chief of communications for UNICEF in Egypt.

WHO school guidelines

A World Health Organization (WHO) briefing note in September for schools said schools could serve as a vector for spreading the virus.

It recommends hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette, proper cleaning, good ventilation, isolation of staff or students who fall ill and measures to reduce overcrowding.

“Decisions about if and when schools should be closed during the pandemic are complex and highly context-specific. WHO cannot provide specific recommendations for or against school closure that are applicable to all settings.”

However, it said that the timing of school closures was critically important and that “modelling studies suggest that school closure has its greatest benefits when schools are closed very early in an outbreak, ideally before 1 percent of the population fall ill.”

To close or not to close?

“While slowing the speed of spread of H1N1 by schools’ closure can buy some time as countries intensify preparedness measures, there are a lot of discrepancies about it, as school closure is associated with social and economic impacts,”said Rana Zaqout, head of the Pandemic Influenza Contigency (PIC) unit for the Middle East and North Africa, which is part of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

“As a parent, while I am concerned about the academic year, I believe that school closure should reduce the transmission of the disease if accompanied by policies that include measures that limit congregation of students outside schools,” she added.

On 14 October, Education Minister Youssri el-Gamal told the Middle East News Agency: “There is no intention of closing schools at the beginning of the winter season.” He said only 10 children out of 20 million primary and secondary students in the country had been infected.

Two days later, La Mère de Dieu girls’ school in Cairo became the first school in Egypt to be closed after three H1N1 cases were discovered. The 1,200 pupils were ordered to stay at home for two weeks.

On 22 October, four private schools in the greater Cairo area were closed for two weeks.

“The main issue is that people do not trust the government or the Health Ministry. They don’t feel they are transparent,” Abu Khatwa of UNICEF told IRIN.

A number of classrooms in schools in Cairo and Alexandria have also been closed for two weeks on orders from their respective city governors.


Ahmed Ali, a teacher at Youssri al-Gamal School in Imbaba (Cairo), felt that overcrowding was the enduring problem. While he was happy to see his 70-children classes more than halved this term, he still had concerns:

“I can’t teach them the same curriculum in half the time. The Education Ministry will have to delay exams this semester so the students will have a chance to pass,” Ali said.

Meanwhile, the Egyptian Health Ministry said it would be receiving its first batch of H1N1 vaccinations - some 80,000 doses - on 23 October.

“Priority will be given to pilgrims going on Hajj, doctors treating H1N1 cases, people who work in public transport and public services, journalists, and school and university students with chronic illnesses, health complications or a weak immune system,” Health Minister Hatem el-Gabali said in a statement.

As of 17 October, WHO reported 14,739 laboratory-confirmed cases of H1N1 in its 22-country Eastern Mediterranean Region. Egypt had the fourth highest number of cases - 1,053 - and two deaths.









Headlines link directly to articles:

1027 Swine flu panic shuts down 2,000 schools [Iraq]

1027 Swine flu risk for Cairo’s overcrowded schools [Egypt]


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