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Hong Kong children stayed home on Thursday after the government shut elementary schools for two weeks to contain a seasonal flu outbreak and experts investigated recent deaths suspected as being caused by the virus.
Health officials say they have found no links to H5N1 bird flu, but the government's decision on Wednesday night to close the schools brought back memories of 2003, when an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) hit Hong Kong.
Emerging from the first meeting of the government-appointed panel, experts said they found no evidence to suggest that seasonal flu viruses detected in two children - a girl aged three and a boy aged seven - had become any more virulent.
"Apart from their lungs and respiratory airways, we can't find the virus in other parts of their bodies. If it was a more virulent, aggressive virus, we should see it in other organs, but that is not the case," said University of Hong Kong microbiology professor Yuen Kwok-yung, leader of the panel.
"We can't be sure that the causes of death were directly related to influenza virus infections," said Yuen.
Scientists not on the panel say the viruses need to be analysed to see if they may have changed in any way. Even small changes can cause a bad flu year.
"If it is (a drifted strain) then more people could get sick because it is something they have never been exposed to and have no immunity against," said Leo Poon, a virologist from the University of Hong Kong.
Health Secretary York Chow, who announced the closure of kindergartens and primary schools late on Wednesday night, said the action was necessary.
"If there are two deaths related to flu even before the peak, then we need to do something to minimise the numbers in the weeks to come," Chow told reporters at a press briefing.
Parents, some of whom were keeping their children at home even before the closure, were worried.
"You can see that many people in Hong Kong are a bit scared of such viruses. It's not like before when kids would just have regular cough and fever. Now, you just don't know how serious any outbreak might be. I am very worried," said Mrs Kwan, a mother of a 10-year-old child.
But Poon said there was no reason to panic.
"This year, there seem to be slightly more flu cases. But from what I can see, we get a bad flu year every few years. I don't think it is very unusual or different from previous years," he said. (Reuters)
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