Swine flu panic grips Lebanon schools

Beirut, October 31: Alarm is spreading among Lebanese over fears of a large-scale swine flu outbreak in schools after the country’s first A(H1N1) death this week, but officials say there is no need to panic.

“People are panicking extensively, and most are focusing on schools, although the risk of catching the virus anywhere else is just as high,” said Father Marwan Tabet, secretary general of Lebanon’s Catholic schools.

The health ministry has called for schools to continue operating normally unless there is reason to stop classes, but the rising concerns have led many families to keep their children at home.

Tabet said no cases had been found in Catholic schools, but a private middle school in Beirut announced Monday it would shut its doors for the coming week after a number of students showed flu symptoms.

“The spread of H1N1 in the Ras Beirut Middle School… is of concern. To date we have had 31 cases,” a statement released by the International College said. “In addition, over 50 students were absent on Friday.”

“We get calls from parents who are panicking over swine flu every day. They are up in arms, although we have assured them that are no cases in our school,” a school official in Beirut said on condition of anonymity.

Lebanon confirmed its first swine flue death on Monday, that of a 30-year-old woman who was eight months pregnant.

In August, a man with advanced lymph gland cancer was found to have been carrying the swine flu virus upon his death, but the virus was not pinned down as the cause of death.

On Tuesday, a Sunni charity school in the southern coastal town of Sidon stopped classes after one student tested positive for the virus, administrative board chief Muhieddin Jwaidi said.

The following day, 83 students were absent. “We then chose to close the school in order to take further measures to reassure parents,” he said.

Further north, in the port city of Tripoli, two schools had stopped some classes for three days as “precautionary measures” after students began to show flu symptoms, a source from the ministry said on condition of anonymity.

None of the cases were confirmed as A(H1N1), the source said.

Students across Lebanon — where anti-bacterial gel sells out almost daily — are not oblivious to their parents’ concerns.

“Our school made us bring that gel to class to wash our hands before and after recess and every time we go in or out of the class room,” said nine-year-old Lynn Moukarzel, an elementary school student outside of Beirut.

Dina Moufarrej, 29, said: “I spend a lot of time on the phone talking to other mothers about the virus.”

“Every day there are new rumours about this school or that,” said the mother of one.

Jeanne D’Arc Abi Aad, 45, takes a much more direct approach regarding her eight- and 10-year-old sons.

“I call my boys’ school several times to make sure there are no absences in their classes. And if they tell me one of their classmates has the flu, I’m bringing them home.”

Health ministry officials have said the situation is under control and that the spread had not accelerated since the first case was diagnosed in May.

Health Minister Mohammed Jawad Khalifeh has said Lebanon is on the list of countries to receive the swine flu vaccine.

He said the first shots would go to individuals particularly at risk of infection: pregnant women, people with chronic respiratory illness like asthma or who are taking immunosuppressant medication, and very young children.

Only one hospital in Lebanon currently tests for swine flu.

Since the virus was uncovered in April, there have been over 4,735 deaths reported to the World Health Organisation as of a week ago, the WHO said.

Most of the fatal cases have been recorded in North and South America, the UN health agency said in its latest update on the flu pandemic.