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Japan Fears Spread of Swine Flu as Cases Rise



It seems like the Japanese Government once again treated a disease as a foreign problem. Was the GOJ a day late and a yen short or is it business as usual if you examine the mentality and the steps taken to educate and combat STDs and the HIV/AIDS virus in Japan? In any case, I am waiting for the H1N1 to hit Tokyo to see how the GOJ and the media either aids in educating or causing mass panic in one of the most populous cities in the world.

From the  Washington Post: To stop swine flu before it could sneak off airplanes arriving from North America, Japan dispatched masked health inspectors with fever-sensing guns to walk among passengers.

But the flu has taken hold on this island nation anyway, with fast-increasing numbers of confirmed cases in western Japan. It is now inevitable, experts said, that the infection will spread to Tokyo, where about 35 million people live in the world’s largest metropolis and where commuters pack cheek to jowl on a vast network of commuter trains.

Excepting the United States, Mexico and Canada, Japan now has more confirmed cases of the H1N1 virus than any other country, according to the World Health Organization. The government here reported 178 cases Tuesday.

And in Geneva, officials with the World Health Organization said the swine flu virus is not growing as fast as hoped in research laboratories, which means drug manufacturers will not be able to start making a vaccine for the virus until mid-July at the earliest. WHO chief Margaret Chan said drug companies at best would be able to make 5 billion doses of the vaccine in the first year of production, the Associated Press reported, which is not enough to cover the world’s 6.8 billion population.

In Japan, illness caused by the virus has been relatively mild so far, and there have been no deaths. But, due to the spread of the virus, more than 4,000 schools in and around the cities of Osaka and Kobe have been closed for the rest of the week.

Prime Minister Taro Aso has begun appearing in public-service announcements on national television, asking the Japanese for calm and saying that if they receive early treatment, they have nothing to fear.

As in the United States, the flu has spread most rapidly among students, and it seems that school closures here, as elsewhere, might not prove effective in keeping young people from hanging out together.

In Osaka, where schools are closed, students formed long queues in front of karaoke clubs because they had nothing else to do, according to local media. One karaoke club owner put up a sign saying that students from closed schools were not welcome. Also in Osaka, some family restaurants that employ teenagers have asked them not to come to work.

Quarantine inspections at airports will probably end soon, the government said, so that health officials can redeploy manpower where it will do the most good.

“We have to shift our focus to domestic measures in line with the spread of the flu,” said Takeo Kawamura, chief cabinet secretary in the prime minister’s office.

By sending inspectors aboard hundreds of jumbo jets arriving from North America, the government managed to find four confirmed cases of swine flu. They were found among Japanese students and teachers returning from a trip to Canada by way of the United States.

But the government might have been looking in the wrong place.

A 17-year-old student from Kobe who was the first confirmed infection in western Japan had made no recent overseas trips, authorities said. He is believed to have been at the center of a cluster of infection that has spread rapidly in the past 10 days, after five high schools competed in a volleyball tournament.

“We can assume that the virus is spreading domestically already,” said Yoichi Masuzoe, minister of health, labor and welfare.

The flu also has begun to spread to workers in convenience stores and train kiosks in Osaka and Kobe, according to the Yomiuri newspaper.

“As people other than high school students are confirmed infected, I’m afraid the situation has entered a phase of an epidemic,” Chika Shirai, chief of the Kobe municipal government’s disease prevention and sanitation section, told the newspaper.

By Blaine Harden

Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 19, 2009 10:17 AM 

Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.

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