By Doug Gray, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – This week marks back to school for hundreds of thousands of school children following their extended winter holidays due to the swine flu epidemic.
The re-openings were part of improved measures to prevent further escalation of the situation which has now claimed at least 300 lives across Brazil. While some states will make up the missed classes with Saturday school and others with shortened half-term holidays, authorities in Rio have yet to confirm such a move.
From Monday, schools have been circulating leaflets outlining the best ways to avoid contracting the illness. Direct measures have also been implemented, such as switching from drinking fountains to water dispensers and disposable cups to minimize the potential for passing on the highly contagious virus. Antibacterial hand wash has also been distributed.
Preschool children will remain on holiday until the end of the month, and pregnant teachers have been discouraged from going back to the classroom straightaway, as both are considered the highest at risk.
Children are deemed the most susceptible to swine flu due to high levels of contact and less-developed immune systems. Monitoring both this period and the number of reported cases during the reopening of schools will be of paramount importance for the government.
The extended closure of schools has been met with some confusion as places such as shopping malls and cinemas have filled with out-of-school youngsters, potentially shifting the zones of contact further into the public domain.
The winter holidays are traditionally a boom time for travel among the wealthier families of Brazil, heightening fears that yet more cases will be brought into the country. Neighboring Argentina threatens to overtake the US with the highest number of reported deaths from swine flu, and both are popular destinations among the upper classes in July. The Brazilian government has issued travel warnings for Argentina and Chile, both countries famous for world-class skiing resorts.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Health has dismissed as ‘irresponsible’ the unlimited distribution of Tamiflu vaccinations following reports of resistant strains of the virus appearing in Canada and China. The Ministry has reportedly struck a deal with GlaxoSmithKline in England to buy stocks of Relenza to treat confirmed cases of H1N1 resistant to the Tamiflu.
The drug is not suitable for children, however, and with Tamiflu’s use restricted to those over the age of twelve, it seemed that this high-risk group was still without adequate treatment.
O Globo reported this week that the Instituto Vital Brasil in Niterói has begun production of a liquid form of Tamiflu designed with children in mind, lowering the dosages from those which tests have shown can cause harmful levels of dehydration and vomiting in the young.