Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 October 2009
Issue No. 966
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Better safe than sorry

As the new academic year looms schools and universities are scrambling to halt the spread of swine flu, reports Reem Leila

Mrs Suzanne Mubarak headed a meeting on Tuesday of the Egyptian Red Crescent (ERC) to discuss the role of civil society in combating swine flu in schools. The meeting comes ahead of the start of the new academic year amid concern by parents and students over the possibility of H1N1 escalating with the beginning of Autumn when the virus is expected to thrive more than in summer. The ministries of health and education have said they had taken all necessary precautionary measures to control the spread of the virus among students.

Schools and universities are planning a shift to distance learning in an effort to prevent the spread of swine flu on campuses ahead of the new academic year, due to begin on 3 October. Television and the Internet will be used extensively to broadcast lectures to students in many of Egypt's 35 public and private universities, as well as its 43,000 schools.

In a press conference on Sunday, Minister of Education Yosri El-Gamal announced that class duration is to be reduced from 45 to 30 minutes. While two thirds of the curriculum will be explained by teachers in the classroom, students will be expected to depend on themselves for the remaining third.

"Students and parents should cooperate with the ministry and schools to get through the expected crisis. Students can resort to educational channels that will broadcast the curriculum on weekdays, from 8am until 10pm. Parents need not to panic," said El-Gamal. The minister added that the Ministry of Investment had provided the Ministry of Education with 16 million surgical masks to be distributed in public schools. According to the Ministry of Education, the number of students enrolled in public schools this year is 16.1 million.

The Ministry of Local Development has agreed with the Ministry of Education to hire 150,000 extra workers for schools. Each school will be allocated three additional staff members to clean classrooms and bathrooms in an attempt to limit the spread of the swine flu virus. The Ministry of Education is also seeking to limit class numbers. According to Reda Abu Serei, deputy to the minister of education, schools with classes ranging between 30 and 40 pupils will not witness any change, while those with larger classes will have weekends restricted to a single day, Friday, allowing classes to be divided.

"In some cases first, second and third primary students will go to school on Saturdays, Mondays, and Wednesdays, while fourth, fifth and sixth grades will go on the other days of the week," explained Abu Serei. "The first three years of primary stage will attend between 8am and 12pm, and remaining years from 1pm until 5pm."

The ministry has also allocated two hotlines -- 19126 and 19151 -- and is urging parents to report any swine flu case among students.

The Health Ministry is also coordinating with universities to reduce the number of students residing in university dormitories by five per cent in order to use the remaining space as a quarantine zone. Clinics will also be installed in every university.

A number of public universities have already outlined their anti-swine flu measures. The Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research has intensified cooperation with the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology in an attempt to boost distance learning facilities.

"We need to make sure that students will have access to the Internet and television channels on which lectures will be broadcast," says Ahmed El-Sherbini, assistant to the minister of communication and information technology. "Universities have to expedite efforts to upgrade the content of their syllabi and make it available in an interactive way to students to ensure that the education process will not be negatively affected by swine flu."

As part of efforts to cut down class sizes Cairo University plans to broadcast lectures on the two satellite TV channels owned by the university. Adel Zayed, vice-president of Egypt's largest public university, also says they plan to lease a third TV channel to broadcast lectures to irregular students in the faculties of arts, law and commerce.

Officials at Helwan University say classes will operate in two shifts -- first and second year students will attend lectures in the morning, and third and fourth year students in the afternoon.

"Some lectures will be recorded and relayed on the student union's radio and the Internet. This is one of the measures taken by the university to prevent the spread of swine flu among the students," announced Atef El-Awam, vice-president of Ain Shams University, Egypt's second largest public university.

Meanwhile, Minister of Health Hatem El-Gabali has warned the public to be cautious in its approach to the new swine flu vaccine, 80,000 doses of which will be available by next month, before the start of the hajj season. Egypt has ordered five million doses of the vaccine, to be delivered over the coming months.

"People should not rush and take the vaccine and should be aware that its side-effects are yet unknown," said El-Gabali.

The Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Health have filed an official request to the United Nations' secretary-general to ensure fair distribution of the swine flu vaccine. Many rich countries have ordered enough to cover their entire population while poor and developing nations are not getting the minimum they need, said El-Gabali during a press conference on 25 September.

A recent World Health Organisation (WHO) press release praised a group of nine countries, including the US, which last week agreed to donate a share of their pandemic vaccine supply to developing nations.

"The WHO will be coordinating the distribution of these donated vaccines," it said, starting with an estimated 300 million doses in November. The press release pointed out that pharmaceutical companies will be able to produce about three billion doses of swine flu vaccine a year, much less than expected. According to the WHO priority vaccination should be given to health workers and high-risk groups, including young children and pregnant women.

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