Closing schools early an understandable move

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 March, 2008, 12:00am

The government's decision late last night to close all primary schools and kindergartens for two weeks from today as a precaution against the spread of flu is a drastic step. But it is one which reflects mounting concerns in the community following the death of four children with flu-like symptoms in circumstances which remain unclear.

One school had been ordered to close and another three announced yesterday they would follow suit. Officials were faced with a situation in which people were taking matters into their own hands. Some schools also appeared confused as to whether they should close or not.

The extent of any threat posed by flu - or any other infectious disease - is still unclear. The government's move may, therefore, turn out to be an overreaction. But given the anxieties within the community, the decision is an understandable precaution to take. It is regrettable that it was not taken earlier in the day, to give schools and parents more warning. Indeed, the message from the government earlier yesterday was that such a move was not necessary. Fortunately, the decision comes just before the Easter holiday begins and the impact on students will therefore be limited.

The decision will only go some way towards easing concerns. But it is important to carefully assess any risks which may exist and to avoid unnecessary anxiety or panic. Five years after Sars, our city continues to live under the shadow of potential epidemics. But while we need to prepare fully for a possible outbreak, there is - as yet - no evidence that one is threatening the community at large.

So far, the response of health authorities has been appropriate. The Hospital Authority has rolled out contingency actions, including earmarking HK$20 million to pay medical staff to work overtime and extra shifts when coping with a high level of flu-related admissions. However, a public crisis is often a crisis of confidence. People need to stay informed. At the same time, health officials must avoid causing panic. They must work to provide timely and accurate information, which is the only antidote to fear and second-guessing. The priority must be to determine as quickly as possible whether a dangerous flu strain - or any other disease - has emerged and to make sure measures are in place to counter any danger. This may include making available more anti-flu drugs and vaccines.

A group of experts has been working overtime to determine the cause, or causes, of the three most recent deaths. Seven-year-old Law Ho-ming died on Tuesday. He was one of 35 students who became ill with flu-like symptoms from the first primary school that closed early for the Easter holiday. Food and Health Secretary York Chow Yat-ngok said no common factors had been identified in the three deaths. Even though all three exhibited flu-like illnesses, there is evidence that two of them died from complications rather than a virulent flu strain.

Many flu cases have been reported at schools across the city - and especially in Tuen Mun - during this peak in the flu season. This does not necessarily mean the situation is worse than usual. The numbers, for now, do not appear to be higher than the annual average during a peak season. They attract attention primarily because of the children's deaths. The government must continue to strive to build public confidence. Measures announced yesterday go some way towards achieving this. But in such a fluid situation, all sides need to respond on the basis of available facts and informed opinions, and not to respond to gut reactions or irrational fears.