The flu season appears to be waning significantly faster than last year thanks to public fear of the deadly new coronavirus, government data shows.
In the week ended Feb. 9, reported influenza cases plunged by over 60 percent to 44,737, compared with 129,989 the same week a year ago, according data from the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.
That means flu cases have fallen for six consecutive weeks since the new year began, the data show.
The ministry also said only 1,760 schools were forced to close by flu outbreaks in the seven-day period starting Feb. 3, down sharply from 3,204 the same week last year.
“Many Japanese people have become serious about taking measures to prevent infection with the new coronavirus. This might be one of the reasons why influenza cases dropped this year,” said Yoko Muramatsu, a researcher at NLI Research Institute.
The new virus, named COVID-19, was first detected late last year in Wuhan, China, and is known to cause pneumonia. It has so far infected more than 75,000 people and killed over 2,100 worldwide. Wuhan, a major business and transportation hub now on lockdown, has a population of some 11 million.
In Japan, daily media reports have focused on the surge in infections aboard the quarantined cruise ship Diamond Princess in Yokohama, prompting more people to wash their hands, gargle, wear pollen masks and avoid crowds.
In Tokyo, masks and alcohol-based hand sanitizers have sold out at drug and convenience stores after medical experts urged the public to take the same precautions against COVID-19 as they do during the flu and cold season.
Muramatsu, who analyzes health care policies for NLI, said there wasn’t enough data yet to clearly identify the relationship between the two phenomena.
“But if the number of cold cases also falls in Japan this year, we may be able to say that growing fears about a spread of the new coronavirus have contributed to decreasing the number of influenza patients,” she said.
In Beijing, meanwhile, the pace of coronavirus infections has slowed, with residents everywhere donning masks based on their experience with the SARS pandemic from 2002 to 2003. Unlike COVID-19, severe acute respiratory syndrome was a much deadlier contagion.
For this month alone, China was logging more than 1,000 new coronavirus infections a day as of Wednesday, but in Beijing the total only rose to around 400 cases from about 150 in the same period.
Academics and others, however, have pointed out that this year’s influenza trend was unusual from the start, regardless of the new coronavirus.
One pundit linked the difference to the Rugby World Cup that Japan hosted in the fall, blaming the large numbers of foreign visitors for kicking off the influenza season earlier than usual.
“In any case, washing hands and using alcohol-based hand sanitizers are effective ways to reduce transmission of both influenza and new viruses. I hope many Japanese people will continue to have a high consciousness of prevention,” a pundit said on condition of anonymity.