The World Health Organization (WHO) said earlier today, Tuesday, that countries should consider closing schools as a way to slow the spread of novel H1N1 swine flu.

The United Nations agency also said the official death toll of the disease since it emerged in April has risen to 700 from the 429 reported two weeks ago.

According to a Reuters news report earlier today, WHO spokeswoman Alphaluck Bhatiasevi told the press that 125,000 laboratory-confirmed cases have been reported, and that:

“School closure is one of the mitigation measures that could be considered by countries.”

Last week, because the virus has spread so fast, the WHO asked countries to stop reporting individual cases. The novel H1N1 has spread as much in 6 weeks as previous pandemic flu viruses spread in 6 months, they said.

Countries should now focus on reducing spread and looking for unusual patterns, such as how it affects absenteeism.

The WHO said it was up to individual countries to decide whether to close schools and it was up to their own health authorities to do what they thought was right to stem the spread of swine flu.

Bhatiasevi said different countries were facing the “pandemic at different levels at different times”.

“So it is really up to countries to consider what mitigation measures suit them in regard to the situation in individual countries,” she added.

A European team of researchers wrote yesterday in an article published in the Lancet Infectious Diseases that governments thinking of using school closure (known as “class dismissal” in North America) need to:

“Weigh the potential health benefits of reducing transmission and thus case numbers against high economic and social costs, difficult ethical issues, and the possible disruption of key services such as health care.”

Dr Simon Cauchemez of Imperial College London and colleagues also cautioned that it was still important to plan to minimize the negative consequences, whether school closure was to be a deliberate policy or just a result of too many staff being absent.

However, they did suggest that closing schools might slow the spread of the virus and buy time until vaccine doses were available.

Bhatiasevi told Reuters that the WHO was also co-ordinating a network of mathematicians, epidemiologists and virologists who are using mathematical models to work out various pros and cons of different measures and forecast the most cost-effective ways that countries might use to slow down the spread of swine flu.

In the meantime, the first human trials of a swine flu vaccine are expected to start in Australia tomorrow, Wednesday.

CSL Ltd, a biopharmaceutical company based in Melbourne, will test the H1N1 swine flu vaccine on 240 healthy adult volunteers aged from 18 to 64, a company spokesperson told CNN.

The volunteers will receive two shots three weeks apart and will also have to give blood samples to check if they are making antibodies against the virus, said CSL.

Source: Reuters, The Lancet, CNN.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD