Mexico flights to Narita face flu scrutiny

by Minoru Matsutani

The government issued orders Monday for doctors and nurses to board aircraft from Mexico at Narita airport starting Wednesday to check passengers and crew for infection of a deadly new virus that combines swine, avian and human influenza.

All arrivals will be required to fill out health questionnaires, and doctors will check people who complain of flulike symptoms while they are still on board, Akimori Mizoguchi of the health ministry said. Those without symptoms will not be tested as a check would be unlikely to detect the flu in an early stage of infection, he added.

Contact information and test results for those without symptoms or who test negative will be sent to local health centers, which will keep in touch with the recent arrivals, he said. If no symptoms occur within 10 days of leaving Mexico, there is little risk of infection, he added.

Although the ministry sometimes takes similar steps when passengers complain of nausea and other ailments, it is rare to dispatch doctors to perform onboard checks on airliners before any complaints are reported, he said.

The decision emerged from a crisis meeting of Cabinet members convened Monday to study the seriousness of the disease, which has killed more than 100 in Mexico and infected people in the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Spain. There are also suspected cases in other parts of Europe, South America and Israel.

“It is necessary to take steps to limit damage to public health and maintain social and economic functions,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura said. “The government will take all possible measures by closely cooperating with other countries, based on the recognition that countermeasures are important for crisis management.”

No cases of the new swine flu strain have been reported in Japan, he said.

Doctors will meet direct flights from Mexico operated twice a week by Mexican airline Aeromexico, and Japan Airlines’ twice-a-week flights from Mexico via Vancouver, British Columbia, Mizoguchi said. Kansai and Chubu international airports do not handle Mexico flights.

Passengers arriving from Mexico will receive announcements in Japanese and English asking them to report to quarantine officers if they are experiencing flulike symptoms, Mizoguchi said, adding that announcements in Spanish and other languages will be arranged as soon as possible.

On Saturday, quarantine offices at Narita and two other international airports began using more temperature-measuring devices to detect passengers with a fever. So far no passengers at the three airports have been intercepted by quarantine officers.

Japan’s international airports began using the devices in 2003 after the SARS outbreak in China the previous year.

After the Cabinet meeting, Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Yoichi Masuzoe told reporters he will place priority on pursuing a vaccine to counter swine flu instead of producing vaccines against seasonal influenza.

Finance Minister Kaoru Yosano suggested at a press conference that he is ready to take budgetary steps, if necessary, to counter swine flu. “It is important to freely use money and manpower in order to address an issue affecting public health,” he said.

Meanwhile, farm minister Shigeru Ishiba said Japan has no plans to ban imports of pork from Mexico or the United States, emphasizing the strict sanitary steps maintained by those countries for their foreign-bound pork products.

At the crisis meeting, the government said it will gather information on swine flu in Mexico and other countries and monitor the reaction of the World Health Organization.

It will also boost support for Japanese living overseas, including Mexico, while providing medical care to those who enter Japan from affected countries and are infected or feared to be infected with swine flu.

“We want people to be cautious, check announcements by the government and act calmly,” Kawamura said.

On Saturday, the WHO advised all nations to be alert for unusual flu outbreaks following reports of swine flu infections in humans in Mexico, the U.S. and Canada.

Japan had 24,104 Mexican visitors in 2008, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization, while 69,946 Japanese went to Mexico in the same year, the Japan Association of Travel Agents said.

Information from Kyodo added