Pink eye outbreak shuts schools in American Samoa

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PAGO PAGO, American Samoa (AP) — Officials in American Samoa on Friday ordered all public schools in the U.S. island territory closed after nearly 2,300 students and more than 100 teachers contracted pink eye.

The outbreak prompted the closure of 28 schools from preschool through high school, plus preschool and special education programs, and they will not reopen until Wednesday. Some private schools were also closed and court cases postponed because of pink eye.

Close to 2,300 students and 130 teachers have pink eye, said Salu Hunkin-Finau, director of the territory's Education Department. About 13,000 kids are enrolled in public schools in American Samoa, a group of islands in the South Pacific about halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii.

"(These) are alarming numbers of students and staff affected," Hunkin-Finau said. "We are giving our children and all our personnel the days as well as the weekend to take care of themselves and also protect others."

Conjunctivitis — known as pink eye — is one of the most common eye conditions, inflaming tissue on the eyeball and lining the eyelid, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC says viral and bacterial pink eye is very contagious, and it can also be caused by allergens.

Local government officials believe it spread from neighboring Samoa, where an outbreak closed schools for a week last month.

The territory's Department of Health issued a health alert on pink eye last week after the number of cases spiked at community health clinics and a hospital.

Dr. Joseph Tufa, the department's medical director, said on territory-run public television Thursday night that total numbers were not yet available.

Parents and government officials say that the number of cases will be higher than what's reported because many people are opting to stay home rather than go to a doctor.

The territory's largest private school system, the Office of Catholic Education Service, closed Friday and was expected to remain shuttered Monday. The closure encompasses a high school, three elementary schools and two kindergartens, with more than 700 total students enrolled. Other smaller private schools were also closed.

"The pink eye epidemic is moving quickly, affecting several of our students and teachers," said Eddie Brown, the Catholic school system's director.

The outbreak also affected court cases, with most criminal hearings in the High Court of American Samoa postponed Thursday and Friday because the assistant public defender was out sick with pink eye.

Marshals were screening those entering the building for pink eye, with about four people turned away from court Friday.

Several District Court cases were also postponed.

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