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Hong Kong closes all kindergartens, primary schools for 500,000 youngsters amid flu outbreak
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    HONG KONG — Hong Kong’s government ordered Wednesday that all kindergartens and primary schools be closed for two weeks amid a flu outbreak, shutting down classes for more than a half million students.
    The government also asked one of its top scientists to study three child deaths over the past week.
    The Education Bureau said all kindergartens, primary schools and special schools would begin the Easter holiday early to prevent the spread of influenza in schools. The order affected 1,745 schools, which had 559,019 students enrolled in the 2006-07 school year.
    Health secretary York Chow said the administration has seen a growing number of people suffering from the flu, adding that bringing the Easter break forward will help reduce cross infection among school children and calm public fears.
    ‘‘We estimate this peak season of influenza will continue for a few weeks,’’ Chow said during a news conference late Wednesday night.
    Earlier in the day, Chow said Yuen Kwok-yung, who helped study Hong Kong’s outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak or SARS about four years ago, will head a panel of scientists studying the recent deaths.
    SARS infected 1,755 people in Hong Kong and killed 299.
    It was not clear whether the three cases were linked but that he became concerned after the most recent death — that of a 7-year-old boy on Tuesday — because five of the victim’s classmates have also been hospitalized, Chow said.
    The cause of the boy’s death has not been determined. Officials have said that some of his classmates were believed to be suffering from the flu, and the government closed the school earlier this week.
    The five classmates who were still hospitalized were in stable condition, Chow said.
    No cause has been determined in the two other deaths that occurred last week — girls aged 2 and 3.
    The deaths came amid a series of flu outbreaks in Hong Kong over the past several days. Health officials have confirmed a total of six outbreaks at schools, a hospital and a nursing home for the elderly since March 6.
    The flu outbreaks also have led to full occupancy at some hospitals, while the number of patients seeking walk-in treatment at emergency rooms had risen 16 percent from the same period last month, Hospital Authority Chief Executive Shane Solomon told reporters Wednesday.
    None of the cases have been linked to bird flu, which was recently detected in birds in Hong Kong.
    Bird flu remains difficult for humans to catch, but scientists fear the virus that causes it could mutate into a form that spreads easily among humans and trigger a pandemic that some say could kill millions.

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