Japan is in the grip of a severe flu epidemic, causing nearly 500 schools nationwide to close down in one week earlier this month, the largest number in recent history, health ministry officials said Saturday.

Around 39,000 schoolchildren and kindergarten pupils had been diagnosed with flu as of Jan. 18, with the number increasing by 19,000 in the week from Jan. 12, according to a survey covering schools nationwide by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.

Many of the patients have been infected with the type-A Hong Kong flu.

The number of patients at this time of the year is higher than in the previous peak of the 1998-’99 season, when some 32,000 people are estimated to have died of flu and related conditions.

By prefecture, Osaka had the most cases with 7,900, followed by Hokkaido, Saitama and Tokyo, the report said, adding that Iwate and Ishikawa had no patients.

The ministry is warning school authorities that the epidemic is likely to continue to spread.

In a separate ministry survey of 5,000 hospitals and clinics nationwide, the number of people with flu at each institution averaged 29.15 between Jan. 13 and 19, an indication that this year’s epidemic is fairly serious, the officials said.

The nation’s pharmaceutical industry appears to have been caught off guard, with demand for drugs to combat flu rising and supplies of some products running out.

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