Millions of students will stay home from today (Thursday) after Punjab announced blanket closures having recorded 357,000 conjunctivitis cases since the start of the year. The fast-spreading eye infection causes redness, itchiness and discharge from the eyes and contamination can spread through hand contact, as well as coughing and sneezing. “The closure has been announced as a proactive measure to give maximum protection to students against the infection,” Punjab education department spokesman Zulfiqar Ali told AFP. There are 127,000,000 residents in Punjab and 56,000 state schools, as well as thousands of independent schools also subject to the shutdown. “We hope this will break the cycle of the infection in the province,” Ali said. Schools across Pakistan had already been due to shut on Friday owing to a public holiday, however many would usually open over the weekend to provide extra classes or stage exams. Punjab authorities said students would be screened at school gates when they reopen Monday. Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the transparent membrane that lines the eyelid and eyeball. The disease continues to infect and has hit Punjab hard, with state-run hospitals across the province reporting 500-600 patients. The highest number of infections in the province was reported in Lahore. The alarming surge in cases has had a noticeable impact, as evidenced by emerging reports indicating that the infection is affecting people of all age groups. A large number of school-going children have been complaining of eye infections, primarily because they are not adhering to precautions at school. There have also been reports that school administrations are allowing students to stay home as soon as they contract the virus and are advising parents to take special care of their children. Medical experts say pinkeye is spreading rapidly in densely populated cities where people are exposed to unfriendly environments, such as factories, bazaars, markets, and shopping plazas. In light of the rise in cases, the Punjab School Education Department issued a notification Wednesday announcing four-day holidays. It said all schools would reopen from Monday (Oct 2) and would observe the standard operating procedures issued by the department to curb the disease’s spread. It directed all chief executive officers in the province to ensure compliance with the order. Separately, in a video message, interim Punjab Chief Minister Mohsin Naqvi said the holidays were announced to curb the average spread of the disease, estimating that the move would lead to a 50 per cent reduction in cases. He said there would be eye inspections for students at educational institutions across the province when they reopened.