Hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong school children will be getting an early start to their Lunar New Year holiday as the city's education authorities ordered the closure of all kindergartens and primary schools to fight an outbreak of flu.
The annual New Year holiday will start on February 8, rather than next week, "to minimize the spread of influenza," the Hong Kong Education Bureau said in a statement, urging schools to use the extra time to "clean and disinfect the whole school premises thoroughly."
Currently, flu is widespread across much of the world, including most of Europe, Asia and North America. Experts say the most prevalent strain is H3N2, also known as "Australian flu" after it emerged during that country's most recent flu season.
Schools have shut in parts of the US, where at least 37 children have died since October from flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Since the start of the year, more than 120 people have died as a result of the flu in Hong Kong, including two children, according to public broadcaster RTHK.
An Education Bureau spokesman told CNN the last time schools closed in this manner was June 2009 during the swine flu pandemic.
Bad flu season
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that each year around 290,000 to 650,000 people die worldwide as a result of influenza.
"When H3N2 dominates, it generally is a bad actor from the beginning and usually foreshadows a bad year," Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN.
A total of 745 flu-related deaths were reported in Australia last year, well above the annual average of 176, according to health authorities. H3N2 accounted for an estimated 55% of cases, officials said, with this year seeing some of the "highest levels of activity since the 2009 pandemic."
Parts of Asia, including South Korea, China and Singapore have all reported higher than usual incidences of the flu, though not all were suffering from the H3N2 strain.
During the 2009 swine flu pandemic, at least 18,000 people died around the world, according to the WHO, and some estimates put the death toll significantly higher.
Risks to children
According to Hong Kong's Centre for Health Protection, schools are particularly vulnerable to the spread of influenza strains as many children "may be too young to take proper personal care."
"As such, communicable diseases can easily spread through close person-to-person contact," the department said.
Hong Kong is particularly sensitive about communicable diseases due to the city's experiences during the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak, when around 300 people died and hundreds more were hospitalized.
Last month, a CHP spokesman urged children, the elderly and those with underlying illnesses "to get vaccinated as early as possible ... as it takes about two weeks for antibodies to develop in the body after vaccination."
"They should promptly seek medical advice if influenza-like symptoms develop so that appropriate treatment can be initiated as early as possible to prevent potential complications," the spokesman said.
Hong Kong recently expanded its free vaccination schemes for children and elderly people, and officials said hundreds of thousands of people have already been vaccinated.
However, a spokeswoman for the CHP confirmed to CNN that stocks are running low, but added a new batch has been ordered for after the Lunar New Year break.