Schools braced against flu virus

Officials across Far East draw up plans to combat potential pandemic.

Michael Fitzpatrick reports

Officials are stepping up measures to prevent a bird flu pandemic in China's schools.

The government has said it will build up an emergency response system that will incorporate guidance on prevention and treatment of various infections, including bird flu.

The Education ministry has issued advice for teachers on dealing with bird flu, including evacuation for schools on signs of an outbreak.

Schools are preparing for their first drills in case of an influenza pandemic, while Hong Kong has already conducted its first mock evacuation.

Avian flu has killed 78 people in China and south-east Asia so far, 42 of them in Vietnam. Five people have died in China, the ministry of health said this week.

A researcher at the Flu in China information centre, who declined to be named, said: "Minors are particularly vulnerable to viruses such as bird flu.

"As schools are the most usual places for cluster influenza outbreaks, special attention does need to be put into the minds of teachers about potential human bird-flu infection."

According to the Xinhua news agency, China's health ministry said analysis of the human cases found that the virulent H5N1 strain of the virus had mutated compared with the strain found in Vietnam, but could not yet be passed from person to person.

The World Health Organisation was this week conducting tests on three children in Turkey who died of the same strain to determine how the virus was spread.

Now virulent in fowl, scientists suspect that H5N1 is mutating and will soon change into a form that will be capable of killing millions of people.

The WHO is urging governments to prepare for a flu pandemic similar to the influenza outbreaks that killed between 20 million and 40m people worldwide in 1918-19.

Schools are notorious breeding grounds for the flu virus. Two years ago, Japan shut more than 200 schools to stop a flu epidemic spreading further.

But in China, many teachers, particularly in the provinces, know very little about the disease, and some say the threat is not being taken seriously enough.

Stella Peng, a high-school teacher in Shanghai province, said: "There may be a drive to educate teachers and students on the dangers of bird flu, but in my school neither the authorities nor the students pay much attention to it, although there have been some drum beatings about sanitary measures from the school hospital."

In Taiwan, the education ministry has set up a bird flu emergency response committee and has asked schools to set up their own committees to improve communication in case of an emergency.

The ministry has asked schools to encourage students to take their temperature daily and immediately report symptoms of fever or respiratory difficulties to local health departments.

Classes will be suspended if symptoms of bird flu are discovered. Schools have also been ordered to provide information on bird flu on their websites, the ministry said.

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