24 February 2019
The current coverage rate of influenza vaccination among children aged 6 months and 12 years old in Hong Kong stands at only 18.3 percent. Photo: AFP
The current coverage rate of influenza vaccination among children aged 6 months and 12 years old in Hong Kong stands at only 18.3 percent. Photo: AFP

How govt can better respond to flu outbreaks in schools

On Wednesday, Feb. 7, school kids in Hong Kong were given an early start to their Lunar New Year holiday as the government ordered all kindergartens, child care centers and primary schools to shut down immediately in the face of the raging flu outbreak.

I totally agree with the government’s move; it has done the right thing in prioritizing students’ health and safety amid the deadly epidemic.

But the decision to shut down schools was made so hastily and the plan was so poorly organized and coordinated that they led to widespread chaos in schools across the city that morning. Many were caught completely off guard by the announcement and were therefore totally unprepared.

And the situation was further compounded by poor communication even within the government itself over the closure order.

For example, some kindergarten and primary school principals have told me that when the Centre for Health Protection (CHP) announced the immediate closure of all schools at around 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 7, the Education Bureau (EDB) didn’t notify them of the decision immediately.

Worse still, even officials at the various local communication offices of the EDB were unable to confirm the news.

It wasn’t until two hours after the CHP announcement had been released that the EDB finally issued formal notices to kindergartens and primary schools about the decision.

As a result, full-day primary schools only had about half the day to prepare for the closure, notify parents, arrange for students’ lunch and school bus service, and cancel all the scheduled events, among other things. For half-day kindergartens, their teachers and principals only had barely one hour to do all that.

As we can imagine, the pressure and the massive workload piled upon teachers by the sudden closure order on that day were just absolutely staggering.

The ongoing flu outbreak isn’t an isolated case, and is likely to happen over and over again. So what lessons can we learn from the latest school closure and how can we improve the way we respond to flu outbreaks in schools in the future?

Perhaps we can draw some useful insights by referring to a couple of overseas examples.

In Taiwan and Macau, for instance, the coverage rates of influenza vaccination among students stand at an impressive 75 percent, thanks to the concerted efforts made by their governments under which local health authorities have taken the initiative and have been sending nurses to schools regularly to vaccinate kids against flu for free.

And their efforts have obviously paid off, as no massive flu outbreak in schools has been recorded in Taiwan and Macau in recent years.

In contrast, the current coverage rate of influenza vaccination among children aged between 6 months and 12 years old in Hong Kong only remains at 18.3 percent.

There is an ongoing pilot scheme in Hong Kong under which the Health Department provides subsidies for school operators so that they can choose private doctors and clinics and arrange for them to come to their schools and vaccinate their students.

However, as of February this year, only 60 schools have volunteered for the scheme.

The lukewarm response among our local schools to the scheme can be attributed to several factors such as the lack of professional medical knowledge among school management about the pros and cons of the various vaccination plans available on the market and the massive paperwork that the scheme incurs.

As a result, most schools would rather let parents decide whether to get their children vaccinated in private clinics than take it upon themselves to do the task.

As a matter of fact, to address the issue and boost the flu vaccination coverage rate among our students, all the government needs to do is to incorporate flu vaccination into the existing Childhood Immunization Program”

The program has proven to work: the percentage of children in the city who have been vaccinated against measles and diphtheria stands at 99 percent.

If the government is willing to act now and improve the program, and if schools are also willing to arrange for their students to get vaccinated, I believe the overall risk of another major flu outbreak in our schools would be substantially reduced in the future.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 12

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Legislative Council member from the education sector

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