A highly contagious virus believed to be swine flu is sweeping through Wairarapa schools, with more than 300 pupils away sick and warnings that this winter's outbreak will kill more people.
The virus, which has seen attendance at some schools cut in half, was likely to be the potentially fatal swine flu, health authorities said.
Swine flu, which reached pandemic levels last year, was confirmed to have infected at least 50 pupils at a Blenheim school last week.
Two people, both in the northern North Island, have died from swine flu this year, and Health Ministry public health director Mark Jacobs said there would be more deaths.
The World Health Organisation says the swine flu H1N1 virus is now the most prevalent flu strain in most parts of the world.
Wellington Regional Public Health Service has issued an urgent alert to all schools in Wairarapa, appealing for all sick children to be sent home immediately to try to contain the spread.
Swabs have been taken from sufferers to try to pinpoint the type of virus. Medical officer of health Annette Nesdale said everything pointed to a particularly severe influenza outbreak.
"The pattern we are seeing throughout the schools is consistent with influenza, which is likely to be the swine flu strain. High temperature, chills, headache, nausea and some vomiting and diarrhoea is what we are seeing. It is pretty miserable."
No-one had been sent to hospital because of the Wairarapa outbreak.
Dr Nesdale said Wellington had so far had isolated clusters of influenza but nothing like the levels of infection in Wairarapa.
Nationwide, most reported influenza-type viruses this year had been swine flu.
The virus has spread swiftly through five Wairarapa schools so far: St Theresa's School in Featherston, Greytown Primary School, Chanel College in Masterton, Masterton Primary School, and the semi-rural Fernridge School, near Masterton.
More than 300 children and 20 teachers and school staff have so far succumbed to the virus.
St Theresa's is one of the hardest hit. Acting principal Lorraine Southey said the outbreak spread within just days.
"Last Friday we only had three children absent. Since Monday, we have had between 63 and 65 away sick, as well as three teachers. With a roll of just 133, it is taking its toll on the school."
Greytown Primary School has 25 per cent of its pupils away sick and was doing all it could to try to contain the spread, acting principal Neil Preston said.
"We have put sterilising hand wash into every classroom and are getting cleaners to disinfect every single surface to try to contain it.
"We have no idea whether the virus has hit its peak yet or has really only just started."
Every child and staff member affected was being told to stay home for at least another 48 hours from when symptoms disappeared.
Dr Nesdale said that with the flu likely to continue to spread, people with a high health risk should be vaccinated immediately.
This year, a record one million people have had a flu jab, which includes a swine flu vaccination.
More than 3100 cases of swine flu were confirmed in New Zealand during the peak of the pandemic last year, including 158 admissions to Wellington Hospital.
Dr Jacobs said there had been 409 confirmed cases of swine flu this year – 62 of them since last Friday. But many more suspected cases were not confirmed.
The outbreak was expected to be smaller than last year because many people had already been exposed to the virus and had developed antibodies.
Environmental Science and Research data showed just under 30 per cent of the population was exposed to swine flu already and had antibodies. Almost half of the under-20 population was exposed.
Schools in areas such as Wairarapa and Blenheim, particularly affected this year, probably got off lightly last year, meaning fewer pupils had immunity.
Just under 200 people had been admitted to hospital so far this year, compared with 1000 last year.
- The Dominion Post
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