Flu toll climbs to 700 as schools closure mulled
School closure an option considered in Europe and North America to reduce swine flu outbreakGeneva - Swine flu has now killed more than 700 people around the globe, the World Health Organisation said on Tuesday, as experts debated whether schools should be closed to contain the pandemic.
Egypt became the latest country to warn vulnerable Muslims not to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca, after a woman returning from Saudi Arabia became the first Egyptian to die from the A(H1N1) virus.
New figures highlighted the impact of the outbreak on tourism, with New Zealand reporting that the numbers of visitors from China, Japan and South Korea fell by half in June compared with the same month in 2008.
The WHO has warned that the pandemic is now unstoppable and its rapid spread since it broke out 4 months ago was highlighted when agency spokeswoman Aphaluck Bhatiasevi told journalists the toll was now "over 700 deaths."
The previous toll published by the WHO on 6 July stood at 429 deaths.
With health experts mulling how best to limit the spread, Bhatiasevi said school closures was one avenue that countries could choose to go down.
"School closure is one of the mitigation measures that could be considered by countries," she told journalists.
"Different countries would be facing the pandemic at different levels at different times, so it is really up to countries to consider what mitigation measures would suit them," Bhatiasevi added.
Her comments came after a study in The Lancet medical journal, by doctors from Imperial College London, said keeping schoolchildren at home could in some circumstances be effective against the spread of swine flu.
Countries in Europe and North America could be advised to take a look at their policies in the northern hemisphere autumn, it said.
"In an optimistic scenario, closure of schools during a pandemic might have some effect on the total number of cases (maybe a 15 percent reduction) but cause larger reductions (around 40 percent) in peak attack rates," it said.
"However, this reduction will be substantially undermined if children are not sufficiently isolated or if the policy is not well implemented."
It added that there were "still many uncertainties" about the implications of school closure.
But it added: "The H1N1 pandemic could become more severe, and so the current cautious approach of not necessarily recommending school closure in Europe and North America might need reappraisal in the autumn."
Liam Donaldson, chief medical officer for England and Wales, reacted coolly to the suggestion, noting that it had not worked when tried locally already.
Britain is Europe's worst affected country with 29 people having died of the virus.
"I think it would take a lot for us to move in that direction, it would be extremely disruptive to society. When would you open them again, given that flu might be around for several months?" Donaldson told GMTV television.
With upwards of two million people expected in Saudi Arabia over the next 5 months on pilgrimages to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, Egypt advised vulnerable Muslims to put their plans on hold.
The health ministry "has warned the elderly, pregnant women, children and those suffering from chronic illness not to perform the hajj or omra pilgrimages," the official MENA news agency reported.
The warning came ahead of a meeting of Arab health ministers in Cairo on Wednesday to coordinate arrangements and precautions to be taken during the pilgrimage season.
Egypt on Sunday reported its first death linked to swine flu after a 25-year-old woman returning from a Saudi pilgrimage died in hospital.
Peter Capella / AFP / Expatica