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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Cambodia closes schools amid virus panic

Cambodia closes schools amid virus panic

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Students leave Chaktomuk Primary School this morning after the Ministry of Education shut down all primary schools amid fear of more fatalaties from the EV71 virus. Photograph: Vireak Mai/Phnom Penh Post

Fear that an outbreak of the EV71 virus could kill more children prompted the Ministry of Education to close all primary schools and kindergartens in Cambodia yesterday morning, according to an Education Ministry official, teachers and parents.

But the government was divided yesterday about the reason teachers abruptly turned students away, with a senior spokesman claiming it had nothing to do with EV71.

Students were sent home because a high number of colds had been reported in nine provinces, stoking concern the outbreak that has led to the death of scores of children could spread, Ministry of Education Secretary of State Mak Van said yesterday.

“We know that the disease is dangerous for kids, so we asked for immutable permission from the prime minister to allow the kids to stop before the schedule [for holidays],” he said.

At both public and private institutions, students will now take their July 31 end-of-school-year holidays early and not return to classes until October, Mak Van added.

Young children are particularly susceptible to the EV71 virus, which can cause severe Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease and has mostly led to the death of children younger than three who died within 24 hours of being admitted to hospital.

So far, it has led to 55 fatalities from 61 known infections that fitted the case definition, according to the World Health Organization.

Of the deaths, 50 had occurred at Kantha Bopha hospitals, mostly in Phnom Penh, one at the Takeo referral hospital, three at referral hospitals in Kampong Cham and one at the National Paediatric Hospital in the capital, according to WHO.

But Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said Mak Van was wrong and that students had been sent home in a routine practice to make room for upcoming examinations.

“That’s not the reason that the Minister of Education [Im Sethy] told me. They need room and space for high school [examinations],” he said.

A number of teachers and parents told the Post yesterday that children had been turned away from school because of concerns about the spread of EV71.

Khem Mony, a teacher at Phnom Penh Thmey primary school, said yesterday his school director and local authorities told the students to go back home because they are worried about EV-71.

“The letter of the Education Ministry did not mention about EV-71, but my school director announced to the students and teachers about this disease, and then they closed school from today,” he said.

He said that the officials from Sen Sok district’s Phnom Penh Thmey commune stood in front of the school, ordered students to go home and prohibited them from returning in order to avoid the EV71 virus.

“I heard those officials and school director tell the students,” he said.

WHO’s communication officer in Cambodia, Sonny Krishnan, said yesterday that the organisation did not recommend the closing of nurseries and primary schools.

“Obviously, because it can create public panic. But this is just a recommendation, and we leave it to the member countries to decide,” he said.

In Thailand, where more than 12,000 cases of HFM disease have been recorded in the past six months, the government has closed or suspended classes at 29 schools and fears the particularly lethal EV71 virus could spread there from Cambodia.

To contact the reporters on this story: May Titthara at titthara.may@phnompenhpost.com
David Boyle at david.boyle@phnompenhpost.com
With assistance from Mom Kunthear and Bangkok Post

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