All schools in capital city Malé have been shut once again after parents refused to send their children to school amid widespread panic over a flu outbreak that has claimed six lives.
Defence Minister Adam Shareef told reporters on Monday that all schools in Malé and some islands affected by the H1N1 strain of influenza will now re-open on Sunday, April 2.
He insisted the decision to resume school this week was based on the Health Protection Agency’s advice, despite a leaked document showing that an advisory committee on the flu outbreak, which includes health ministry and HPA officials, had in fact recommended that schools remain closed until April 2.
The education ministry first closed schools on March 14, three days before they were due to close for a week long midterm break.
The document dated March 21 triggered confusion and panic with parents taking to social media declaring that their children would not attend school.
In response to a storm of tweets asking for clarification, Dr Abdulla Niyaf, a doctor at the private ADK Hospital, tweeted a song titled “Please Don’t Go”, a post that was widely understood as a message telling parents to keep their children at home.
When schools resumed on Sunday, attendance was less than 20 percent, according to local media. Even less students reportedly turned up on Monday
Shareef, the defence minister, said: “We believed that if schools were opened this week it would be easier to take the lessons that were missed and children can resume their studies in a normal manner.
Statistics indicate the flu is under control, he said, and went on to blame panic on the media “spreading information in a way that incited fear in people’s hearts.”
The HPA has previously explained that since the 2009 pandemic when it was a new strain, the H1N1 “swine flu” virus is now “similar to any other influenza and not any more severe or dangerous.”
Most people who are infected recover in less than two weeks, but children under five years of age, the elderly, pregnant women, and those with chronic conditions such as lung or heart diseases are at risk of developing life-threatening complications like pneumonia.
Shareef added: “Since it is important that people work with the government, and that the government accept public opinion, the government wants to do things according to public opinion. That is why with the advice of the president and the strategic committee we decided to close schools in areas that the flu is present for the next three days.”
The education ministry was not responding to inquiries about attendance at schools, but a Ghiyasuddin School official told the the Maldives Independent on Sunday that only twenty students had turned up.
The official said that teachers had been told not to talk to the media.
A primary school teacher at Ameeniyya School said that only two out of 30 students had turned up to her class.
On Monday afternoon, only a handful of parents were seen dropping off their children at Majeedhiyya School. Only 15 students had come to school, according to a parent there.
The main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party also urged the authorities on Sunday to shut schools for the safety of students and parents.
According to the latest statistics, some 185 out of 546 suspected cases tested positive for the H1N1 subtype of influenza as of Monday.
The World Health Organisation has meanwhile said it “does not recommend any travel or trade restriction or entry screening for seasonal flu.”
“Flu vaccination being the most effective preventive measure, WHO is procuring 30,000 doses to facilitate ministry of health’s vaccination efforts,” the organisation said.