Tue, Aug 25, 2009 - Page 6 News List

Back to school in Europe as swine flu fears loom large

AFP , LONDON

Millions of children will go back to school across Europe over the next few weeks despite fears that their return could help spark a second wave of swine flu infections.

In Britain, the European country worst-hit by the virus, The Lancet medical journal recommended that schools remain shut after the summer holidays to stop the virus spreading as colder weather sets in.

But the British government has decided there is insufficient evidence that delaying the start of the school term would help stop infections.

“The advice is to remain open and make sure that the kids who are ill remain away from schools. There is an exception for special needs schools where kids can have underlying health problems,” a spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said.

After registering tens of thousands of infections every week, Britain has seen a sharp downturn in cases this month with an estimated 11,000 infections a week.

More than 50 people have died after contracting swine flu in Britain, although most had a pre-existing medical condition.

Many experts attributed the fall in infections to the fact that schools were closed for the summer, removing the conditions that helped the virus to spread through the sneezes and coughs of children kept together in close quarters.

Some doctors fear that putting children back into classrooms at a time when the onset of colder, wetter weather ushers in the traditional flu season could lead to the virus regaining strength.

“There is no greater way of facilitating the spread of swine flu than allowing children to mix in schools,” said David Price, professor of primary care respiratory medicine at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and a government adviser.

“If we had a vaccine it would be a different matter, but given that we don’t yet, it would be in my view foolhardy to allow children back to school,” he said on the Pulse medical Web site.

Despite the fears, other EU countries will take the same approach as Britain and keep schools open.

A report by the EU Health Security Committee agreed unanimously that they “do not presently see the need to enact pre-emptive mass school closures.”

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