Japan slow to realize it wasn’t immune to swine flu

No one knows how students who haven't been outside country recently got infected

by Eric Johnston

OSAKA — In Kobe and Osaka, as well as in Tokyo, shocked officials dealing with the outbreak of swine flu had more or less the same reaction Sunday as Kansai Okura High School principal Takaharu Miyanomae.

“None of the students had ever been abroad. So we never thought that this was the new virus,” Miyanomae told reporters after announcing students at his school had tested positive for the new H1N1 virus.

Reports that dozens of people in the Kansai region were infected despite never having been abroad has destroyed the attitude that Japan was somehow immune to a domestic outbreak as long as passengers arriving from overseas, especially North America, were checked carefully.

Parents, school officials, local bureaucrats in both Hyogo and Osaka Prefectures, and the Health and Welfare Ministry were searching for answers as to how the first domestic victims of the virus, most of them high school students, managed to contract it.

By Sunday afternoon, both Miyanomae and officials in Osaka Prefecture had received dozens of angry and concerned phone calls from parents and other residents wanting to know if school and health authorities were too lax in responding to reports of outbreaks of fever and sore throats among students in both Kobe and Osaka.

Local officials were quick to enact measures like advising everybody to wear white surgical masks and take sanitary precautions, although the effectiveness of the masks depends on the kind of mask and how one wears it.

But they also admitted they always assumed that because the H1N1 virus had originated in Mexico, there was no need to check the health or warn passengers on domestic trains and planes over the Golden Week holidays, when the virus was rapidly spreading worldwide.

“Japan’s island-nation mentality is responsible for not only officials but also the general public believing the H1N1 virus is something of a ‘foreign disease,’ ” said Fukuichiro Shimokawa, 75, a retired trading company executive who has lived in the U.S. “It’s an attitude that is quite dangerous and harmful to effective, rational public health debate and ways of properly dealing with not only the H1N1 virus but other dangers like the SARS virus.”