x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

All pupils to get swine flu vaccine

Ministry announces mandatory H1N1 immunisation programme for children, plus workshops for teachers and parents.

Abu Dhabi // More than 600,000 schoolchildren are to be immunised against swine flu once the vaccine is ready, which is expected to be by late September. Vaccination against the H1N1 virus will be mandatory for all public and private schoolchildren aged five and up, a Ministry of Health official said. It was not clear how the programme would be funded.

The decision was made at a meeting of the higher supervisory committee on H1N1 in the capital earlier this week. Parents and teachers will also be able to attend educational workshops held by health professionals to alert and inform them about the swine flu virus. Dr Ali Ahmed bin Shakar, the director general of the ministry, said the logistics of the programme had not been finalised but that the decision was a major part of the UAE's mitigation strategy.

"This is a decision we have made to prevent the spread of the virus," he said. "It is a sensible one which we have taken on recommendations from the World Health Organisation." Children, the elderly and people with chronic diseases are the groups most vulnerable to the virus, which has killed more than 800 people across the world so far, according to the WHO. Dr bin Shakar said that the vaccination programme would be implemented in co-operation with the Dubai Health Authority, Health Authority-Abu Dhabi and all relevant education authorities.

There have been reports that the MoH would cover the cost, but Dr bin Shakar said that had not been decided yet. Nor is it known what will happen to children whose parents object to them being vaccinated, nor how the vaccine will be administered. Several pharmaceutical companies are working independently on a vaccine against H1N1, all with their own timescales, so introduction of the vaccine will be staggered, according to the WHO.

In June the managing director of the National Emergency and Crisis Management Authority, Mohammed al Romaithy, said the UAE had already "signed up" to receive a vaccine when one became available. Parents and teachers expressed their support for the decision to vaccinate. Lina Naffa is a mother of two children who will be going into grades three and six at Choueifat School in Abu Dhabi in September.

She said she was "delighted" that her two girls would be vaccinated. "Kids are always so much more susceptible to diseases in their school environment," she said. "They easily catch colds and viruses because they are not as aware as an adult of basic hygiene habits." Maryam al Jassmi, principal at the Hessa bint Al-Mor Primary School in Dubai, said the decision was a "smart" and sensible one. "This will take a huge load off our shoulders to know that our students are healthy and we will not have to worry about something that is becoming an issue here," she said.

Mrs al Jassmi said the risk of one child with swine flu unknowingly infecting pupils and teachers was too much of a responsibility with a disease so infectious. "The Ministry of Health's support to ease the burden of this responsibility is surely welcome," she said. One mother of an eight-year-old boy, who did not want to be named, was pleased to hear there would be educational workshops "because that would help me decide whether it is a good idea or not," she said.

Additional reporting by Hala Khalaf munderwood@thenational.ae