Pandemic plan calls for mass cremations

The Associated Press

Japan’s plan for any future influenza pandemic calls for shutting down airports, closing schools and organizing mass cremations of the dead in hopes of keeping the virus off its shores or at least containing it.

The government plan estimates that a new human flu virus could infect a quarter of the population and force 40 percent of the workforce to stay home. It could cause as many as 640,000 deaths in Japan if it were to spread across the country, the health ministry said Thursday.

“It is important to delay as much as possible the virus’ entry through measures such as strengthening quarantine to take advantage of the special qualities of our nation as an island nation,” it said.

Flu pandemics break out when a new virus emerges and sweeps through a population without immunity. The deadliest pandemic on record killed an estimated 40 million people starting in 1918.

While there have been no warnings of increased risk this year, flu fears have been stoked in Japan in the wake of hit film “Kansen Retto” (“Infected Archipelago”), which portrays an outbreak that causes death and chaos. The government also held a highly publicized pandemic preparedness drill last month.

This week, major electronics maker Panasonic Corp. ordered the families of Japanese overseas employees to return home from developing countries that may be at risk, including China, most parts of Asia, the Middle East and Africa. The company denied the measure was taken to save money.

The last influenza pandemic was in 1968, but experts have been closely watching the H5N1 strain of bird flu that has been sweeping poultry flocks worldwide.

While that virus remains difficult for people to catch — most of the 254 deaths since 2003 have come from contact with sick birds — experts fear it could mutate into a form that easily spreads among humans.

The World Health Organization has called on countries to develop national plans on how to control the virus should it begin to spread among humans.

Japan’s plan would keep open just four airports and three ports, where a strict quarantine would try to prevent the virus’ entry if it emerges overseas. Charter flights would bring healthy Japanese back home, but those infected would be asked to stay abroad and foreigners would be restricted from entry.