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French in swine flu clampdown

Schools to close if four or more children in a class catch the H1N1 virus as pupils and parents are trained in prevention

Schools to close if four or more children in a class catch the H1N1 virus as pupils and parents are trained in prevention

Strict precautionary measures against swine flu in France mean that schools will be closed if four or more pupils in a class catch it.

In Paris, the city hall has responded by equipping schools with face-masks for staff, as well as extra liquid soap and disposable paper towels, at a cost of more than EUR1 million (#163;875,230).

As in Britain, France's new school year began on schedule last week. But plans are in place for lessons to be broadcast on television or taught over the internet if a severe pandemic occurs.

Luc Chatel, who became education minister for France in June, said the situation did not warrant delaying the return to school, as had been considered, nor was there a need yet for mass preventive school closures. Government circulars had been sent to all heads specifying day-to-day measures for schools to follow.

The education ministry has printed 12 million copies of a leaflet - one for each pupil - for parents, explaining the government's plan and advising on precautions they and their children should take to avoid infection. These include blowing noses into tissues, sneezing into the crook of one's elbow and washing hands with soap.

Mr Chatel said that if children displayed symptoms at home, parents should not send them to school; if at school, they would be isolated until they were collected. If at least three pupils in a class fell ill in the same week, the school must inform the education and health authorities. The prefet - chief commissioner of police - would have powers to close a school for at least six days.

"Some people have told me we are doing too much," said Mr Chatel. "In a few weeks, we will be blamed, perhaps by the same people, of not having done enough."

Teachers' unions have also issued anti-flu advice to members. Mobile vaccination units are due to tour schools from mid-October, when a non-compulsory vaccination campaign will begin.

The inter-ministerial "flu pandemic" committee says H1N1 is the major flu virus circulating in France, and represents the highest incidence of flu since 1984. Although at the end of August the number of cases was increasing - estimated at 57 for every 100,000 inhabitants - the disease did not yet constitute an epidemic.

From the start of the outbreak some six months ago until the end of August, there have been 14 swine flu-related deaths in France. There were seven in New Caledonia and three in French Polynesia, both French territories in the Pacific, two in Reunion, a French department in the Indian Ocean, and two in mainland France.

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