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(LEAD) S. Korean doctors urge gov't to close schools to curb flu

All Headlines 18:05 October 28, 2009

(ATTN: UPDATES with death toll in para 5; ADDS new comments in para 9-10)

SEOUL, Oct. 28 (Yonhap) -- South Korean doctors urged the government Wednesday to temporarily close all schools to stem the rapid spread of the Influenza A virus in the country.

In a statement released in downtown Seoul, the Korean Medical Association claimed there is a pressing need to shut down schools from next month at the latest.

"Such measures are needed due to the rapid spread of the disease within the general populace and among young school children, and because of the time it will take to complete the ongoing vaccination process," the association said.

It added that the government should keep schools closed for at least two or three weeks.

Recently, about 4,000 people in the country have been diagnosed with the flu virus every day. The first cases were reported in North America earlier in the year, and since the first death was reported locally in mid-August, 33 South Koreans have died from the infection, with five being relatively young and healthy.

In response, the education ministry said it in considering a move to close schools where Influenza A is spreading quickly to protect children from infection. There are currently 205 schools that have opted to cease classes due to the flu scare.

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said it will set up specialized intensive care units (ICUs) in large hospitals across the country that will take care of people with severe cases of the Influenza A. The new ICUs will be established in 472 large hospitals in the country.

"The move is aimed at facilitating treatment of sick people who in the past were moved from one hospital to another, resulting in missed opportunities to get anti-viral medication," Kwon Jun-wook, director of communicable disease control at the KCDC, said. He said doctors will also be authorized to prescribe anti-viral medication to patients even without test results confirming H1N1 infection.

Reflecting growing social concerns brought on by the onset of cold weather, President Lee Myung-bak earlier in the day called on all provincial and municipal governments to stay on emergency duty until the flu outbreak is under control.

The chief executive, in addition, said during a visit to a local hospital that government agencies must speed up the vaccination program, through which about 35 percent of the country's 49 million people will be vaccinated before the end of February. Vaccination of medical personnel who come in contact with patients started Tuesday.

The Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs and other government agencies, meanwhile, said on Tuesday that Seoul is committed to safeguarding the health of the general population from the H1N1 flu virus.

Officials said that while the fatality rate has not been high compared to the normal seasonal influenza, it is keeping close tabs on all schools across the country, and will provide quick medical treatment to senior citizens, sick people and young children who have relatively weak immune systems.

They said that while anti-viral drugs like Tamiflu and Relenza had been handled by only 1,622 drugs stores nationwide, they will be handled by all pharmacies starting Friday.

Government policymakers added that under the new guidelines, students showing flu symptoms will be told to stay home, even without laboratory test results confirming infection.


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