H1N1 flu surges in Kansai

All Osaka, Hyogo schools close; public urged to be vigilant but calm

by Eric Johnston

KOBE — The number of domestic swine flu cases reached 140 in Hyogo and Osaka as of Monday evening, prompting fears of an epidemic and leading to calls from the two governors to shut down all schools in the prefectures and for the central government to do more.

Including the four cases confirmed early this month, in which three high school students and a teacher returned from Canada to Narita airport with the H1N1 virus, a total of 144 people have so far been infected with the new flu.

In Tokyo, the government urged the public to stay calm, saying it is doing everything in its power to prevent a further spread of the H1N1 virus.

“We would like to ask people to be on guard but at the same time continue to react calmly,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura said. “The government will take all possible measures to completely secure the safety of the public and swiftly dispatch accurate information.”

But local officials warned more confirmed cases were likely to follow throughout this week, while health experts continued efforts to discover how the potentially deadly virus infected people who had not been abroad and why the vast majority of cases so far are high school students.

All elementary, junior high and high schools in Hyogo and Osaka prefectures have been ordered closed for a week while health checks are conducted and students suspected of having contracted the virus are monitored.

Many private educational facilities in Hyogo Prefecture, including universities and technical colleges, have voluntarily canceled classes.

The closure of nursery schools was hitting working mothers hard, Kobe officials said, with many searching for friends and relatives to watch over their children.

At Sannomiya Station, Kobe’s railway hub, there was concern but not panic Monday morning as the vast majority of commuters were seen wearing protective masks.

Coffee shops and restaurants had fewer customers than usual, but supermarkets and convenience stores were busy with customers purchasing food and supplies in case they are forced to stay indoors.

“In some ways, it’s similar to what happened after the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, when there were also fears of an influenza outbreak,” said Toshio Kotera, 31, a Kobe resident who works near the station.

“Like then, everybody is now making emergency preparations in case they get sick or have to be quarantined.”

Kobe residents were especially nervous about the news that a 50-year-old woman working at a kiosk in Sannomiya Station had contracted the virus.

West Japan Railway Co. shut down its kiosks at the station. A female employee in her 20s at Mitsubishi UFJ Bank’s Sannomiya branch also contracted the virus and the bank responded by asking its staff at the branch to remain at home.

At Osaka’s railway hub of Umeda Station, there were far more people wearing masks than Sunday, but businesses remained open and concern was minimal. In front of the Osaka Municipal Government office in Kita Ward, a Japanese Red Cross blood donation drive was taking place, with only a sign asking donors to spray their hands with disinfectant before giving blood.

But Hyogo Gov. Toshizo Ido and Osaka Gov. Toru Hashimoto, who were in Tokyo to attend a meeting of governors, told reporters that the situation is rapidly turning into an epidemic and that their prefectures are limited in what they can do.

“The situation is getting close to epidemic proportions and we need the central government’s help,” Ido told health minister Yoichi Masuzoe.

“The health minister has all of the authority and responsibility and has to get the central government to move. In this kind of a situation, we’ll follow what the health ministry says,” Hashimoto told a morning news conference in Osaka, where he issued an epidemic warning despite being urged by some officials that it was too early to do so.

Hyogo Prefecture announced a number of measures it was taking to deal with the spread, including assistance for purchasing medical kits to check for fever, and financial support for commuting to and from local fever centers.

Support for the local tourism industry, where hotels and other facilities are facing cancellations, especially by school groups from around the country, will also be offered, according to Hyogo officials.

Osaka officials said hundreds of people had called the prefectural flu hotline Monday.

In Kobe, health officials worried about patients overwhelming local medical facilities have asked that only those with high fevers go to hospitals and that all others call local fever consultation centers first.

Later Monday, signs of a further spread of domestic infections were seen beyond Osaka and Hyogo.

In nearby Nara Prefecture, more than 1,000 junior and high school students in the prefecture were absent from school Monday complaining of illnesses, although links to the H1N1 virus were unclear, officials said.

During a meeting to discuss how to handle the spreading virus, Nara officials learned that 1,117 students, including 453 junior high school students, 646 high school students, and 18 students at special schools, were absent Monday. Several teachers were reportedly sick as well.

The officials said the students will be checked for the H1N1 virus, but the results are likely to take a couple of days.

Additional reporting by Masami Ito in Tokyo