Flu policy given more flexibility

Containment measures will vary based on infection rate

by Natsuko Fukue

The government adopted a new policy Friday that designates infected regions under one of two categories so local governments, hospitals and schools can react with greater flexibility.

The policy, which includes ending onboard quarantine checks on airplanes, is aimed at minimizing the impact of the state’s flu response on businesses and daily life, since the symptoms of the H1N1 virus have been relatively mild.

Until now, Japan’s flu protocol was based on an outbreak of the more powerful H5N1 bird flu, which is estimated to have a 60 percent mortality rate. The policy required that countermeasures be uniformly applied to all infected areas.

Under the new policy, however, infected areas will be categorized according to the number of patients.

The first category is for areas where the infection is in its early stage and there are only a few patients. The second is for areas where cases are rapidly increasing.

To keep the infection rate down, all H1N1 flu patients in first-category areas will be hospitalized, and the national government will request that all schools except universities be closed. Depending on how serious the situation is, a prefecture-wide school closure could be ordered.

In second-category areas, where the flu is already widespread, each school principal will make the call on whether to suspend classes. Patients with mild symptoms may be asked to stay home so hospitals can put more priority on those with chronic diseases, such as diabetes or asthma, who are more at risk of developing serious complications from the virus.

The new policy also ends the onboard quarantine checks that were being conducted at the nation’s three major international airports.

“I really appreciate (the new policy) because it fits the reality facing local governments,” Osaka Gov. Toru Hashimoto said.

Under the previous policy, municipal governments were required to put patients into designated hospitals regardless of the severity of their symptoms, straining resources in Hyogo and Osaka prefectures, where infections ballooned over a short period of time.

“It is important for local municipalities to take a flexible approach (to containing the flu) in accordance with circumstances specific (to each region),” Prime Minister Taro Aso told his Cabinet at a meeting in his office, where the new policy was approved.

Prefectural governments and major cities with public health offices, in consultation with the national government, will decide which category to assign each area.

According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, the policy change puts more emphasis on preventing further infections and on helping people with chronic diseases who have the flu get treatment.

“This of course doesn’t mean that it’s OK for healthy people to be infected. But it’s good to prioritize people at higher risk,” said Nobuhiko Okabe, director of the Infectious Disease Surveillance Center at the National Institute of Infectious Diseases.

Okabe also said that people with chronic diseases should be aware that keeping their health problems under control will help mitigate the impact of contracting swine flu.

The Hyogo Prefecture Government decided to reopen on Saturday all public schools in the prefecture and elementary and junior high schools in Kobe.

Before the new policy was adopted, more than 4,000 schools in Hyogo and Osaka prefectures were closed due to the significant number of teenagers with the new flu.

On Thursday, a Korean man who arrived at Narita airport from Chicago tested positive for the new flu, and 11 people who had close contact with him were quarantined at a hotel near the airport. Because of the policy change, they were released Friday morning.

Meanwhile, in western Tokyo, a man in his 20s tested positive for H1N1 on Friday, becoming the third case in the capital, the metropolitan government said. The man, a resident of Mitaka, recently visited Osaka Prefecture, it said.

Neighboring Saitama Prefecture also reported its first swine flu case — a 29-year-old Japanese man — and said another person was being tested.

Growing infections in western Japan had brought the nationwide total to 317 as of Friday evening.

Information from Kyodo added

Mexico visas OK’d

Kyodo News

The government on Friday lifted its suspension on visa waivers for Mexicans wishing to enter Japan, the Foreign Ministry said, referring to a measure taken in late April at the start of the H1N1 swine flu outbreak.

The government also revised its advisory for Japanese wishing to travel to Mexico, the country worst hit by H1N1, and on Japanese living there, the ministry said in a press release.

The government is asking Japanese to take proper care when traveling to Mexico or residing there, it said.

The government suspended visa waivers for Mexicans on April 28 to tighten its borders against the contagion and urged Japanese nationals to postpone trips to Mexico, where the death toll had been surging, unless necessary.

It also called on Japanese residents of the country to leave as quickly as possible.

The new flu is not as virulent as first thought.