London, Apr 10 : Closing schools during a deadly flu pandemic could slow the spread of the disease and prevent up to one in seven cases, says a new study.
Health organisations and governments most often consider school closure as the non-pharmaceutical policy option to control the spread of a future flu pandemic, but there had previously been little evidence about its potential effectiveness.
Research team from the MRC Centre for Outbreak Analysis and Modelling at Imperial College London, working with colleagues in France, used computer modeling to explore how school closure would affect the spread of a theoretical pandemic H5N1 avian flu virus which had mutated to pass between humans.
They extrapolated from data collected by French GPs, showing how school holidays alter the patterns of influenza transmission in France.
The new study shows that shutting down schools for a prolonged period in the event of a pandemic could prevent up to one in seven cases.
School closures would also slow and flatten the pandemic, reducing the numbers becoming ill in the worst week of the outbreak by up to 40percent.
The researchers suggest that this could be important in reducing pressures on healthcare services during this time so that hospitals and GP surgeries would be better able to cope.
However, the researchers caution that closing schools for a prolonged period would be a very costly measure, particularly because of its impact on working parents. Taking away the childcare that schools provide could also affect the spread of the virus, in ways that are difficult to model using existing information.
"Our research shows that school closures could be a useful measure in terms of slowing the spread of a flu pandemic. However, its effectiveness would very much depend on what other measures, like vaccination or antiviral drugs, were put in place as well," Nature quoted Dr Simon Cauchemez, one of the authors of the study from the MRC Centre for Outbreak Analysis and Modelling at Imperial College London, as saying.
The researchers reached their conclusions after analyzing surveillance data collected since 1984 by 1,200 GPs in France, to see how the rate of influenza transmission is reduced during the country's school holidays. This data showed that holidays lead to a 20-29 percent reduction in the rate at which influenza is transmitted to children, but that they have no detectable effect on the contact patterns of adults. The French data also revealed that children were responsible for around 46percent of all infections.
The researchers then extrapolated from this to explore how prolonged school closure might affect transmission in the event of a pandemic of mutated H5N1 in a country like France.
The study is published in the journal Nature.