Twenty five schools in Northern Ireland have been hit with swine flu outbreaks since the start of the new term, health officials revealed yesterday.
Over half of those happened within the last 10 days - with 12 schools and one playgroup being affected in that time.
The impact of the pandemic across the region's education system was outlined in the aftermath of the devastating outbreak at Foyleview Special School in Londonderry, where two pupils with swine flu died earlier this month.
While additional measures have already been introduced in the special needs sector, including vaccination of children and staff, the health authorities have no plans to replicate all these in mainstream schools, where the consequences of the virus spreading are less likely to be serious.
Dr Carolyn Harper, from the Public Health Agency NI, said there were no plans to close affected schools given the prevalence of the virus throughout Northern Ireland.
"It's important that people understand that they are as likely to be exposed to swine flu outside of school as they are in those settings," she said.
"This virus is likely to be with us certainly through the rest of this year, potentially into next year, and it's really not feasible in terms of maintaining a child's education to close schools."
Swine flu infection rates across the world continue to be highest among the five to 14 age group.
Dr Harper, who was joined by Chief Medical Officer Michael McBride and other senior officials at the first of a new weekly briefing on the influenza pandemic, stressed that the threshold for declaring a school outbreak was not high.
"Typically the numbers are low," she added.
"There may be one, two, three children affected, certainly we have had some schools where it's been literally one case before they contacted us."
Pupils in mainstream schools who contract the illness are advised to take anti-virals and stay at home.
Meanwhile, the full vaccination programme for the 2,500 or so children with special needs in Northern Ireland was completed last week.
They are among the half million people in the region included in the first wave of vaccine scheme.
The initial phase, which is targeted at front line health workers and individuals deemed to be in a high risk category, will be completed within four to five weeks, health officials assured today.
During the briefing, Dr McBride moved to allay concerns among some pregnant women about whether or not they should take the vaccine.
He insisted that it was safe and did not affect expectant mothers any differently to those who aren't pregnant.
Other headline figures in the statistical update for the week ending last Friday (week 43 of the outbreak) showed that infection rates across the region continue to increase.
Data for Northern Ireland showed:
- GP consultations for flu and flu-like illness rose from 241 per 100,000 in week 42 to 280 per 100,000 in week 43 - up by 16%.
- Out of hours calls for flu and flu-like illness have also increased for the eighth week in a row to 1,080 (21% increase) and also remain highest in the 5-14 age group
- There were 142 new cases of laboratory confirmed swine flu during week 43
- The total number of laboratory confirmed cases in Northern Ireland as at noon yesterday was 899
- Anti-viral prescriptions have increased to 2,552 during week 43 (42% increase) compared with 1,791 courses prescribed in week 42; a total of 18,331 anti-viral prescriptions have been issued at noon October 28
- The number of cumulative swine flu hospitalisations is 437 as at noon yesterday; there has been a 23% increase in the number of new hospitalisations from 62 in week 42 to 76 in week 43
So far eight people in Northern Ireland with swine flu have died. Two other people from the region have died elsewhere - one in Spain and one in England.
Dr McBride said front line health providers were coping well despite the spread of the virus. He also stressed that the vaccine was being distributed to GPs as quickly as it was arriving from the manufacturers.
"Swine flu is clearly still circulating widely in the community," he added.
"Vulnerable groups, such as pregnant women and those with underlying health conditions, are a priority within our vaccination programme and I would encourage everyone to get the vaccine when it is offered.
"It is the best defence against swine flu and will give these vulnerable people the protection they need. Protect yourself, protect those at risk and get the vaccine.
"I want to reassure the public, however, that for the vast majority of people swine flu remains a relatively mild illness from which you will make a full recovery."