Swine flu could close schools in September

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Schools could be forced to close in the autumn to halt the spread of swine flu, which has now affected over 800 people in the UK, including 50 in one school in Birmingham.

20 schools have already been closed in England and Scotland for up to a week after pupils tested positive for the H1N1 strain. Experts think that a flu pandemic is likely to strike the UK in September or October as children return to school, and the virus will gather strength as it spreads.

As the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the first flu pandemic for 40 years officially under way, the Government’s Chief Medical Officer said that several million Britons would fall ill with the H1N1 virus.

Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist at Imperial College, London, who advises the Government and the WHO, said that widespread illness could lead to schools closing for several weeks and that the pandemic could mean that 25-35 per cent of the population would fall ill within three or four months.

The virus is two to three times more deadly than seasonal flu, which kills an estimated 12,000 people each year.

It is estimated that a widespread school closure policy could prevent one in seven cases and one in five among children, while reducing infections at the peak of the pandemic by 40 per cent.

A decision will be not be taken until the circumstances of any autumn outbreak are known, however, because of the measure’s high economic and social costs. Working parents would have to make alternative childcare arrangements for several weeks, adding to absenteeism because of illness.

However, the illness could be so prevalent at the peak of a pandemic that even large-scale school closures could not contain its spread.

Describing the virus as "unstoppable", Dr Margaret Chan, director-general of the WHO, said: "the world is now at the start of the 2009 influenza pandemic", adding further cases and deaths linked to swine flu are inevitable.

Prof John Oxford, from Queen Mary School of Medicine, University of London, said: "The virus will be like a bushfire. At the moment, it's moving fairly quietly in the community but when children go back to school in September the virus has an opportunity to spread."

Andy Burnham, the new Health Secretary, said the declaration of a pandemic did not change the situation for Britain. Confirmed cases and their close contacts have received the anti-viral drug Tamiflu and orders have been placed for 90 million doses of H1N1 vaccine which are due to be delivered by December. At present, the UK has enough antiviral drugs to cover half the population.

The WHO’s decision to raise the global alert level from five to six — officially signalling a pandemic — came after a day-long emergency meeting of health officials to discuss the implications of widespread outbreaks of illness in 74 countries, including a sudden surge of cases in Australia.