Health ministry prepares for possible flu alert upgrade

Kyodo News

Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura on Wednesday ordered the health ministry to make preparations for a possible upgrade of the World Health Organization’s pandemic alert for a new strain of influenza to the highest level of 6.

Meeting with Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Yoichi Masuzoe at the ministry, Kawamura said, “If the phase is upgraded to 6, Japan has to do everything it can. Japan’s crisis management will be put to the test.”

He also called on the ministry to continue making all-out efforts to block the entry of the virus into Japan, such as conducting health checks on passengers at airports, and to be fully prepared in the event that a person infected with the new influenza is found in the country.

Japan has yet to be hit by the H1N1 virus. The number of people infected with the flu has exceeded 1,500 in a total of 22 countries and territories around the globe, according to government announcements and media reports.

At Narita airport, many passengers returning to Japan from trips abroad could be seen wearing masks as a precaution against the flu as Wednesday marks the last day of this year’s Golden Week holiday period in the country. An estimated 46,000 people arrived at the airport from overseas on Wednesday alone.

“I was worried about the flu when I left Japan (for South Korea), but the only people wearing masks I saw there were Japanese,” said Kana Ishii, a 21-year-old college student who had been on a family trip to the neighboring country.

Setsuko Ouchi, 25, said she had reluctantly returned to Japan from Mexico, where she had been studying, at the request of her family who were worried about the large number of people infected in the Latin American country. “There are not many people wearing masks in Mexico,” she added.

Namie Sawada, a 38-year-old doctor from Tokyo who returned to Japan from New York, also had something to say about differing perceptions of masks.

“When I was wearing a mask in New York, people looked at me as though they had seen something bizarre,” she said. Sawada also said it is important to conduct follow-up studies on people suspected of being infected with the flu, in addition to medical checks on passengers at airports, because the flu has an incubation period.

At a separate meeting the same day, Masuzoe criticized some hospitals for refusing to see patients suffering from fever, even though their risk of being infected with the new influenza is low because they have not been to any of the countries affected by the flu.

“It’s against the Medical Practitioners Law. I would like doctors to treat such people as part of their social responsibility,” he told a health ministry meeting to deal with the influenza issue.

The number of cases in which Tokyo hospitals had refused to see people with fever totaled 92 from Saturday morning to noon Tuesday, a Tokyo metropolitan government survey showed Tuesday.

If the WHO pandemic alert level is upgraded from 5 at present, the government is expected to hold a meeting of its flu task force headed by Prime Minister Taro Aso, according to Kawamura.