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Number of flu patients rises in Japan with 1.24 million new cases reported in first week of the year

Kyodo, Reuters

An estimated 1.24 million people, mainly in southwestern and western Japan, caught influenza in the first week of January, up from around 1.01 million the previous week, a state-run institute said Tuesday.

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare said the season’s peak is expected run from late January to February and called on the public to wear masks or cover their mouths with a handkerchief so as not to spread flu through sneezing or coughing.

The figure was calculated by the National Institute of Infectious Diseases based on the number of patients reported by some 5,000 clinics across the country.

The average number of patients per medical institution stood at 16.31, according to the tally.

By prefecture, Miyazaki had the highest number of flu patients per institution with 34.17, followed by Okinawa with 31.76, Oita with 28.93, Fukuoka with 28.14 and Nagasaki with 26.04. They are all in southwestern or southern regions of the country.

The most common form of the viruses detected in the last five weeks was the new type-A influenza that caused a pandemic in 2009, according to the institute.

A delay in flu vaccine production this season has caused a shortage. But the health ministry has said the necessary amount of vaccine can be secured by restricting people aged 13 and above to taking only a single shot.

If infected, elderly people are likely to develop severe symptoms, and children could suffer from acute encephalitis in rare cases. Washing hands, disinfecting with alcohol, maintaining high humidity and refraining from going to crowded places are said to be effective precautionary measures.

As many as 646,000 people die globally from seasonal influenza each year, U.S. health officials said in December, a rise from earlier assessments of the disease’s death toll.

Global death rates from seasonal influenza are likely between 291,000 and 646,000 people each year, depending on the severity of the circulating flu strain, they said.

Flu cases in Australia during the 2017 southern hemisphere winter resulted in record-high numbers of lab-confirmed hospitalizations and deaths, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, wrote recently in the New England Journal of Medicine.