Hong Kong closes all primary schools as flu outbreak worsens
( dpa ) - All primary and kindergarten schools in Hong Kong were ordered to close by the government from Thursday as a flu outbreak in the former British colony worsened.
Health secretary Dr York Chow made the announcement late Wednesday night saying it was a precautionary measure aimed at curbing public fears and giving schools an extended Easter break to clean up and reduce the risk of the virus spreading.
The move follows the closure of two schools earlier in the week after it was revealed that three young children, the youngest being a 21-month old baby, had died within the last month with flu-like symptoms.
A fourth child, a boy aged three, is also currently in intensive care.
The Centre for Health Protection said on Wednesday it had received reports of flu outbreaks at 23 schools, with almost 200 reported cases.
The school closures are a grim reminder to Hong Kong residents of the 2003 SARS outbreak when all schools were closed as cases of the deadly virus rose daily.
SARS was a cold-like respiratory illness which killed 299, infected 1,755 and led to widespread panic across the city and region.
Concerns over the current outbreak has seen more face masks being worn in schools and hospitals - the same that were ubiquitous during the 2003 crisis.
Announcing the closure following a late night meeting, Dr Chow stressed it was a precautionary measure to ease anxiety among both parents and school management.
"As the Easter holiday is only a week away, we decided to ask all the primary schools, kindergartens and nursery schools to take an early break for two weeks," he said.
"This is both a precautionary as well as an administrative decision. During the break, schools will be thoroughly cleansed and the two-week period would be two times the incubation period for the virus.
"We hope the break would minimise the chance of infection for these young children so that they can have a clean and healthy environment when they return after the holidays," he said.
The government has also announced it will spend 20 million Hong Kong dollars (2.5 million US dollars) over the next two months to increase manpower at hospitals which are struggling to cope with the volume of parents bringing in children with flu symptoms as fears about the outbreak mount.
As well as SARS, Hong Kong saw the world's first modern-day outbreak of bird flu in 1997 when the virus infected 18 people, killing six of them.