Sunday, October 25, 2009

Egypt News Update: Swine Flu Risk For Cairo's Overcrowded Schools

EGYPT: Swine flu risk for Cairo's overcrowded schools

IRINnews,Thu 22 Oct 2009

Egyptian students left their school exam wearing surgical masks outside their school in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, June 13, 2009. A student dorm at the American University in Cairo was placed under quarantine after seven Americans, six students and one faculty member, were diagnosed with swine flu.
CAIRO, 22 October 2009 (IRIN) - 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.

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).

The main issue is that people do not trust the government or the Health Ministry. They don't feel they are transparent. "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.

This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the Pan-African News Wire

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