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Afghan Schools Reopen After Swine Flu Shutdown

Swine flu measures in Kabul

Swine flu measures in Kabul

KABUL (Reuters) -- Afghan children returned to school wearing medical face masks today after a three-week closure ordered by the government to prevent the spread of the H1N1 virus.

Schools will be open for 20 days so pupils can sit exams before closing for the winter holiday, Education Ministry spokesman Attah Mohammad Qaneh said.

The government advised parents to send children to school in face masks and to keep them home if they are even slightly ill, said Health Ministry spokesman Dr Ahmad Farid Raeed.

"I have to pass my exams to advance to fourth grade, and I am happy that schools are open again," Parwin, a 10-year-old Kabul girl, told Reuters. "I won't take off my mask and I won't eat anything at school."

Her father, Ahmad Zia, said he had ordered his two daughters not to remove their masks.

"I don't know whether this disease is dangerous but we should take precautions," he said.

H1N1, commonly called swine flu, spreads easily and can be dangerous for children, especially if they suffer from other health problems.

Afghanistan declared a health emergency earlier this month and ordered all private and government educational institutions and kindergartens closed to help prevent the spread of H1N1 after attributing its first death to the virus.

The Health Ministry said then that it had detected 350 cases of H1N1 and several hundred more people were suspected of being infected.

But Ahmad Bashir, a shopkeeper, said he believed the closures were a plot by the authorities to try to avoid public demonstrations during the disputed reelection of President Hamid Karzai, who was inaugurated last week.

"It was a political maneuver to prevent any protest against Karzai's reelection," he said, but added: "I told my son to put on a mask, just in case."