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Japan's new flu outbreaks become monstrous pandemic overnight
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11:36, May 19, 2009

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Latest statistics show that the number of new-flu cases in Japan has risen to 173 after the Kobe municipal government confirmed 10 more patients Tuesday, while in Kansai region the large number of people with flu-like symptoms suggests that the disease will likely gather momentum to spread ona full scale.

The latest cases of A/H1N1 influenza, the first discovered outside of an international airport, came in the form of group infections at high schools in Hyogo and Osaka prefectures.

Experts say the rapid spread of the new flu might be the resultof a chain reaction, set off by students infected by someone who caught the virus overseas and passed on the disease to others through public activities such as club activities and other forms of contact.


The surging number made Japan the country with the fourth largest number of the new-flu infections and put it on high alert,though by far the patients are mostly confined to the Kansai region, in particular, Osaka and Hyogo Prefectures.

As part of preventive measures, Japan's health and education authorities have ordered to close more than 4,000 schools in the region.

Possible risks of massive outbreaks have become reality and thesituation surrounding the fast-spreading disease may most likely grow graver.

Though the authorities have been working hard to keep the virusout of Japan, experts have warned that quarantine and other efforts could prove ineffective as the A/H1N1 flu has an incubation period of up to one week during which infected people show no symptoms.

There is also a possibility, said The Asahi Shimbun in an editorial Tuesday, that people with flu-like symptoms hesitated tocall "fever hotlines" at local governments and public health centers after seeing how the government's restrict, high-profile quarantine operations put the infected patients in the spotlight.

And the government may have helped created an unwarranted senseof security among the public by stressing the effectiveness of itsborder security and surveillance operations, there by making people believe the virus had not got in.

Urging the public to stay calm as infections in the Kansai region continue to grow, Prime Minister Taro Aso said Monday that the government will not ban people from leaving home.

"The government isn't considering imposing a uniform ban, including prohibiting people from leaving home, voluntary restraint on gatherings or voluntary ban on business activities," said Aso.


The new A/H1N1 virus could reach Tokyo with days, warned an expert on infectious diseases.

"It could be today or tomorrow, as soon as someone who has caught the virus comes to Tokyo on the bullet train," Hitoshi Kamiya, chief of the health, labor and welfare ministry's committee on vaccinations, was quoted by The Japan Times as sayingon Monday.

The severity of the outbreak in the Tokyo area hinge on how quickly the new cases are detected, he added.

Faced with the imminent threat of the new flu, many worried people are donning masks as a precaution. However, the regular masks help reduce the chances of catching the new flu, they don't provide complete protection, according to Kamiya.

The health authorities are preparing a vaccination for the new virus, it won't be available for three or four months and, like the vaccination for seasonal flu, will not provide immunity, he said.

In addition, quarantine inspection on flights is ineffective aspatients who are not yet showing symptoms could not be detected, Kamiya said. "And people don't necessarily tell the truth about their health condition."

Since the new flu has become humanly-transmitted disease domestically, it is no longer possible for authorities to spot thepeople who may be infected, he said.


Faced with the imminent threat of the monstrous A/H1N1 flu, specialists are at variance over the drastic measures taken in the Kansai region to curb the spread of the disease.

More than 2,500 schools in the region have been closed for a week, events have been canceled and one bank branch in Kobe has ordered all non-management staff to stay home.

"The bank's decision to keep its workers at home is nonsensical from a medical point of view and is a massive over-reaction," Tatsuhito Tonooka, former head of the Otaru municipal public health center in Hokkaido, was quoted by The Daily Yomiuri as saying. "The bank seems to be most concerned about protecting its corporate image."

If more companies or institutions implemented similar measures, it would fan people's anxieties and whip up panic.

He also criticized the central government for applying action plans that should be carried out for pandemics of a flu with higher virulence than the current one.

Tonooka's remarks were, in a sense, echoed by Norio Sugaya, chief of the pediatric department at Keiyu Hospital in Yokohama, who maintained that closing every school in an entire prefecture was excessive.

"It makes sense to close the school with infected students or schools in that area to help reduce anxieties among nearby residents," he said.

From the economic perspective, Sugaya said that the economic loss outweighs the social benefit of preventing people from catching the flu if a parent have to take time off from work to look after their small children as a result of school suspension.

Mitsuyoshi Urashima, associate professor at Jikei University School of Medicine, however, uttered a very different voice.

"High school students are involved in a wide range of activities, so it would be sensible to close all schools in a prefecture and ask cram schools and leisure facilities to suspend their operations," he said.

He argued that the authorities should take every possible measure and prepare for the worst-case scenario, dismissing the assumption, made by Tonooka, for example, that the new flu strain has only a low virulence.  


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