Mass outbreak of eye infections closes 56,000 schools in Pakistan

A child with an infected eye is examined by a doctor in Rawalpindi, Pakistan
A child with an infected eye is examined by a doctor in Rawalpindi, Pakistan - SOHAIL SHAHZAD/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

More than 56,000 schools in Pakistan closed their doors for four days amid an outbreak of viral conjunctivitis, with 13,000 new cases reported in one day on Tuesday.

Millions of students were sent home after Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, announced that it had recorded nearly 400,000 infections since the start of the year.

The fast-spreading eye infection, colloquially known as “pink eye”, is an inflammation of the mucous membrane covering the front of the eye and eyelids, causing redness, itchiness and discharge.

It is spread through coughing, sneezing and physical touch.

Paul Hunter, a professor in Medicine from the University of East Anglia, said closures represent only a temporary solution and will not work long term.

“I suspect that there are many more such outbreaks that are not reported,” he told the Telegraph.

“Closing schools may temporarily reduce spread of adenoviruses but transmission is likely to pick up again when the schools reopen.”

Bacteria fears

Most infections are usually caused by adenoviral infections, which are not usually associated with long term damage, he added, but due to Pakistan’s dusty environment, there is a risk infections could turn bacterial.

“If the child continually rubs the eye it could lead to the introduction of bacteria and cause bacterial conjunctivitis… I suspect that in Pakistan with a more dusty environment it may be more of a concern,” he said.

Bacterial conjunctivitis can cause longer term damage if not treated quickly, including sight loss in newborn babies.

The infection can also spread to other areas of the body, triggering more serious secondary infections, such as meningitis.

The number of people appearing with the disease at private hospitals and clinics is thought to be double the official total, according to local reports.

The majority of the schools would usually have opened their doors over the weekend for extra classes and stage exams.

Students are now being screened at the gates as they return to the classroom.

“The closure has been announced as a proactive measure to give maximum protection to students against the infection,” Zulfiqar Ali, the Punjab education department spokesman, said. “We hope this will break the cycle of the infection in the province.”

School closures may have contributed to a dip in infections over the weekend, with only 1,134 cases reported in the 24-hour period between Sunday and Monday, but experts say this is only temporary.

Caretaker Chief Minister Mohsin Naqvi, who visited schools in the region amid the outbreak, found that in every class, six to seven students were affected by conjunctivitis.

Investigators are looking into the cause of an outbreak in hospitals.

State-run hospitals across the province have granted leave to all staff members, including doctors, nurses, and paramedics, who are suffering from infections.

The Bahawalpur district is the worst impacted, followed by Faisalabad and Lahore.

Those infected have been told to stay home until they are symptom free.

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