The number of domestic swine flu cases hit 42 on Sunday after 34 high school and college students as well as their family members and teachers in Osaka and Hyogo prefectures were confirmed to have been infected.
The confirmations followed the discovery Saturday of Japan’s first eight domestic infections of the new H1N1 flu in Hyogo. A World Health Organization expert said community-level transmission may have begun in Japan, which could lead the WHO to raise its new flu pandemic alert to the highest level of 6 from the current 5.
“We need to be fully prepared to prevent the further spread of infections,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura said.
Of the 34 newly confirmed infections, 11 were detected in Osaka and 23 in Hyogo. Local authorities said more than 1,000 schools ranging from kindergartens to high schools in the two prefectures have decided to suspend classes for varying periods.
In Osaka, 20 prefecture-run high schools in the cities of Suita, Toyonaka and Ibaraki, where infected high school students live, will be closed through Saturday.
The 42 infections exclude the four cases discovered earlier during onboard quarantine inspections at Narita International Airport among a group of students and teachers returning from a school trip to Canada. Of those four, two students and a teacher have been declared free of the flu and have been discharged from hospitals.
Local authorities in Osaka said the 11 cases detected there were connected to Kansai Okura Senior High School in the city of Ibaraki and none of the students had traveled overseas recently.
A total of 143 students of that school have been absent this month due to flulike symptoms such as fever. The private school said it will be closed from Monday through Saturday.
Many of the cases in Hyogo were linked to Kobe High School and Hyogo High School.
Osaka Gov. Toru Hashimoto, speaking at a hastily arranged meeting Sunday morning of local health officials, warned more confirmed cases were likely to follow.
“A lot of people were infected in a short period of time, and the virus is predicted to spread further,” he said.
The students at Kansai Okura High School developed a high fever between last Wednesday and Friday, just a few days after students in Kobe began feeling ill.
Officials are investigating a connection between the two schools that might explain why students at two locations some distance from each other became sick at roughly the same time.
Local officials urged all facilities that attract large groups of people to shut down.
In Osaka’s Umeda Station area, the Hankyu, Hanshin, and Damairu department stores remained open Sunday, although there were fewer customers than normal and many people wore masks.
Several convenience and drug stores in and around JR Osaka Station said they quickly sold out of flu masks. The white masks, despite questions among medical professionals about how effective they really are, have become a necessary purchase for many of those concerned about the spread of the virus.
Workers at several stores, including FamilyMart and Seven-Eleven outlets, in the Umeda and Honmachi areas of Osaka were wearing masks Sunday. Seven-Eleven Japan Co. said it was requiring employees at its 95 Kobe stores to wear masks, and FamilyMart is requiring employees at its 140 stores in the Kansai region to also don masks.
At Hankyu Umeda Station, conductors and ticket attendants were all wearing masks and some were passing out fliers to commuters, especially those on the Kyoto line, which stops at Ibaraki Station, asking them to put on masks. Workers on the Hankyu line between Kobe and Osaka have all been instructed to wear masks, Hankyu officials said.
At the domestic-only Itami airport, a spokeswoman said that while some passengers were wearing masks as they boarded planes, airport officials were not yet taking any special health measures.
There was no sense of panic on the streets of Osaka, just concern, although several people said they plan to stay home from work this week or would keep their children home from school even though they did not live in the affected area.
“No sense in taking a chance. I think my child can afford to miss a day or two of school, although I hope it’s not for too long,” said Ayako Ito, 33, an Osaka resident.
The prefectural request to shut down areas where large groups of people gather had local businesses worried the large venues would be ordered to close down and were concerned what that would mean for smaller businesses.
A city official said that depending on how the virus spreads, it’s possible that the Universal Studios Japan theme park could be closed, and that baseball games and concerts in the city of Osaka could be canceled.
Information from Kyodo added
The city of Osaka has set up a hotline service for non-Japanese speakers with questions and concerns about swine flu. Call (06) 6943-8530 between 9 a.m. and 5:45 p.m. weekdays for language assistance in English, Korean, Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, Indonesian and Thai.