Cambodia closed all kindergarten and primary schools nationwide on Wednesday to check the spread of a deadly virus that causes a severe form of hand, foot, and mouth disease, principals and officials said.
The Education Ministry issued a statement saying the schools would get an early start to the scheduled July 31 vacation, without giving a reason except to say Prime Minister Hun Sen had ordered them shut.
But school principals said the closures were intended to prevent infected students from spreading the disease, which according to the World Health Organization (WHO) has killed at least 55 children among 61 reported infections in the country since April.
In the capital Phnom Penh, students were dismissed two hours into their classes on Wednesday, with some students and parents left not knowing why.
One mother, Khat Oum, said she was not aware of the reason for the early dismissal when she came to pick her second-grader up from the Boeung Trabet primary school.
“I will respect the ministry’s order, but if they would allow my child to study, I would have my child stay,” she said.
One 10-year-old boy outside the school said teachers wouldn’t say why the vacation was starting unexpectedly.
“My teacher said school will be closed through August. My teacher didn’t say the reason but that he would tell me after I return,” he said.
The WHO said Wednesday it had not recommended school closures and was concerned they could cause panic, according to the Reuters news agency.
A spokesman said the disease was under control in the country and no new cases were reported.
The spate of children’s deaths had sparked fears of a “mystery” illness until the WHO and the Ministry of Health said last Monday that most of the victims had tested positive for a lethal strain of Enterovirus-71 (EV-71), which causes the disease.
The victims were between three months and 11 years old, with most under three years of age.
Chan Sophea, director of the Ministry of Education’s primary schools department, refused to comment on the reason for the early dismissal.
“I only authorized to issue a statement allowing students to begin the break early,” he said, adding that the early vacation would post little harm because most schools have already completed the year’s curriculum.
But another Ministry of Education official who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity said the closures, which affect tens of thousands of students, were to prevent an epidemic.
“[W]e are working to make sure that children would not be infected,” he said.
EV-71, which is fairly common in Asia, is contagious and spread from person to person by direct contact with most bodily fluids.
Hand, foot, and mouth disease mainly occurs in children under 10 years of age, in particular those under five years.
Symptoms generally include fever, painful sores in the mouth, and a rash with blisters on the hands, feet, and buttocks.
There is no specific treatment available, but the illness is typically mild and most children recover quickly.
Hand, foot, and mouth disease has spread through the Asian region recently, sickening more than 110,000 and killing 166 in neighboring Vietnam last year and killing more than 240 in China this year.
Reported by So Chivi for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.