Virus could reach Tokyo anytime

Severity depends on how fast cases are detected, expert says

by Mariko Kato

With more than 130 new cases of swine flu detected in Hyogo and Osaka prefectures, an expert on infectious diseases warns the new virus could reach Tokyo within days.

“It could be today or tomorrow, as soon as someone who has caught the virus comes to Tokyo on the bullet train,” Hitoshi Kamiya, chairman of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry’s committee on vaccinations, said Monday.

The severity of the outbreak in the Tokyo area depends on how quickly the new cases are detected, he added.

Domestic cases of swine flu shot up dramatically over the weekend, reflecting the two- to three-day incubation period before a carrier starts to show any symptoms. It is during this time that the virus is most likely to spread, explained Kamiya, who is also honorary director of the National Mie Hospital and head of the Mie Prefecture Vaccination Center.

The majority of confirmed cases have been among high school students, as schools are a closed environment where the virus can spread easily, but experts are also keeping an eye on their families, he said.

“In the United States, they are saying that elderly people are less likely to catch the new flu because their bodies may be immune, but this has not been confirmed yet,” he said.

Faced with the imminent arrival of swine flu, many worried people are donning masks in the hopes of preventing infection. However, according to Kamiya, while the regular masks help reduce the chances of catching the new flu, they don’t provide complete protection.

“The virus is small enough to penetrate the average mask, although (by wearing one) you can protect yourself from the majority of droplets when someone near you coughs. But if you’re aiming for zero (risk), the mask will not make any difference,” he said.

Kamiya added that a respirator mask often used by doctors can prevent infection, but the filters are so small it becomes difficult to breathe.

In contrast with the prevailing mood, Kamiya said people should take a deep breath and be reassured that the new virus is fundamentally the same as seasonal flu.

“About 17,000 people a year die in Japan from normal flu, so the current numbers (of swine flu cases) are nothing we should be surprised at, although it is true that it is spreading quickly because not many people are immune to it,” he said.

He added that while the health ministry is preparing a vaccination for the new virus, it won’t be available for three or four months and, like the vaccination for seasonal flu, will not provide immunity.

According to Kamiya, Japan’s reaction to the pandemic so far has been exaggerated compared with other countries.

“For example, the quarantine inspection on planes is ineffective because you cannot detect people who have the virus but are not yet showing symptoms, and people don’t necessarily tell the truth about their health condition,” he said, adding that the government is basing its strategy on procedures to stop a bird flu pandemic.

Now that swine flu has spread domestically, it is no longer possible for authorities to spot the people who may be infected, Kamiya said.

“Fever consultation centers will soon be overcrowded, so it’s up to citizens to report their conditions accurately and consult their own doctor first,” he said.