PAGO PAGO, American Samoa >> American Samoa is keeping most schools closed for the rest of the week as the U.S. territory tries to contain a pink eye outbreak that has affected at least 2,400 students and teachers, disrupted court hearings and kept some passengers from boarding flights.
All 28 public schools were scheduled to reopen Wednesday after shutting down Friday. But only four schools in the remote island group of Manua are back in session. Officials in American Samoa, a group of islands in the South Pacific about halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii, will keep schools on the main island of Tutuila shuttered until next week.
More than 30 percent of teachers are on sick leave because of conjunctivitis, a common eye condition better known as pink eye that can be extremely contagious, Education Department Director Salu Hunkin-Finau said.
“In order to help prevent the further spread of the pink eye virus, we highly recommend that all affected teachers and workers stay home,” she said. “Please keep your child out of reach (of) those that are affected by the pink eye.”
Conjunctivitis inflames tissue on the eyeball and lining the eyelid, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pink eye can be caused by viruses and bacteria as well as allergens, the CDC says.
Territory health officials say the outbreak is a nuisance but not very dangerous.
“It’s very rare for it to cause any serious damage to the eyes,” said Dr. Mark Durand, a health department physician. “And as far as we know, it’s never fatal.”
Durand said 468 cases of pink eye had been recorded at community health centers and a hospital in the territory as of Monday, but he acknowledged that most people don’t see a doctor for the condition.
Health officials recommend that schools stay closed until the outbreak passes if more than 20 percent of their students have contracted pink eye.
The territory’s largest private school system, the Office of Catholic Education Service, will keep its six schools closed the rest of the week, Director Eddie Brown said. Classes will resume April 21 after a previously scheduled spring break.
Meanwhile, Hawaiian Airlines had refused to allow “a handful” of passengers who showed visible symptoms of pink eye to board flights to the rest of the United States, airline spokeswoman Ann Botticelli said.
Hawaiian Airlines is the only airline connecting American Samoa with the U.S., with flights to Honolulu twice a week.
Botticelli said flights between the island chains are thoroughly cleaned.
“All hard surfaces of our plane are cleaned with an antiviral solution and pillows and blankets are bagged and disposed of,” she said. “Our cleaners have been given additional clothing for protection.”
The outbreak also affected court cases, with hearings postponed because of a public defender contracting pink eye and court security screening those entering the building for the condition.