Pink eye outbreak shuts down schools in American Samoa

An outbreak of pink eye has infected thousands of students in American Samoa, and prompted Hawaiian Airlines to take precautions to prevent the spread.

On Friday, officials in American Samoa closed all public schools until Wednesday, after nearly 2,300 students contracted pink eye.

About 130 teachers also got pink eye.

It’s believed the disease was spread from neighboring Samoa, where an outbreak closed schools for a week last month.

Hawaiian Airlines flies directly from Pago Pago, American Samoa to Honolulu twice a week.

In fact, one of the flights is scheduled to arrive in Honolulu early Saturday morning.

The airlines is taking some precautionary measures to prevent the spread of pink eye.

Pink eye is one of the most common eye conditions, and it can be very contagious.

If someone has pink eye, the white parts of their eyes look pink or red.  And that’s not the only thing.

“There’s a lot of symptoms, discharge, the eye feeling irritated, a scratchy sensation, your eyelid swelling up sometimes,” said Optometrist Dr. Nora Chan, Vision Care Centers of Hawaii.

She said she’s surprised that so many people have been infected in American Samoa.

“Normally it doesn’t spread that fast,” Chan said.

Hawaiian Airlines Flight 466 is scheduled to leave Pago Pago at 11:20 p.m. on Friday and arrive in Honolulu at 5:40 a.m. on Saturday.

Hawaiian Airlines Spokesperson Huy Vo said: “If a passenger shows up with signs and symptoms of pink eye, then they will need to be cleared by Medlink, our aeromedical consulting service, before they board our aircraft.”

But if by chance someone suspected of having pink eye makes it onto the flight, the airlines will notify Honolulu Airport’s medical team, and they will meet them at the plane to evaluate the situation.

“Anytime you’re in a tight community, like an airplane, if people aren’t good with hygiene, keeping their hands clean and away from their faces, then yes it could easily spread,” Chan said.

Even if no one onboard shows signs of pink eye, Hawaiian plans to give the plane a thorough cleaning.

Vo said: “Upon arrival of Flight HA 466 from Pago Pago tomorrow morning, all hard surfaces will be cleaned with a special anti-viral disinfectant after all passengers disembark.  Pillows and blankets will be bagged up and disposed of accordingly, and our cleaners have been issued additional protective clothing.  The aircraft will be cleaned completely before it turns.”

Even though pink eye is contagious, the State Health Department is not concerned about it.

State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park said: “Pink eye is not a reportable condition as it is not a condition that we would consider to have a significant public health impact” since it’s not associated with high morbidity and not a fatal condition.

“But once you have pink eye it’s important to see an eye doctor,” Chan said.

Especially since it can have some serious effects if it isn’t treated.  The worst case scenario — it could lead to blindness.

The best way to prevent getting pink eye is to practice good hygiene.

And if you get pink eye, it could take as little as a week or as long as several weeks to get rid of it.

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