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An increasing number of municipalities in Japan are conducting individual medical checkups of infants and toddlers following a decision to suspend group examinations due to worries about the spread of the coronavirus.

The shift is aimed at preparing health care workers and the wider medical system for an expected second wave of COVID-19 infections.

But, counterintuitively, the move has sparked concern that municipal government nurses will be less observant of infants and toddlers, and that the quality of examinations will be inconsistent based on the varying skill-levels of individual doctors.

Group examinations, on the other hand, are widely considered as reliable and carefully carried out.

Takasugi Children’s Clinic in Soja, Okayama Prefecture, examines three or so 4-month-old babies per day, taking body measurements, interviewing parents and checking for signs of abuse.

Aya Haruna, 21, said she was relieved when she was informed her baby girl Noa is healthy and growing well after the child underwent her examination at the children’s clinic.

“The (group) exam was delayed because of the coronavirus, and I was worried about whether she was developing as expected,” Haruna said.

Yuka Fujimoto, 30, who brought her daughter Mina to the clinic for a checkup, said, “I felt at ease that we wouldn’t be mixing in a large group of people.”

The Soja Municipal Government discontinued group consultations of 4-month-old babies in April and started individual checkups in collaboration with five hospitals in the city in June at the request of parents.

The individual examinations, offered to some 150 babies, “are convenient for mothers and allow them to avoid cramped situations,” the city official in charge said.

The consultations will be conducted until the end of July, while preparations are also being made to cope with a second wave of infections.

But some experts support municipalities that have decided group consultations remain the best option.

Before the pandemic changed everything, nurses and other professionals were able to keep close tabs on the mothers and their babies at home to ensure they are not socially isolated or that mothers are not suffering from postpartum depression.

They conducted home visitations or put them in contact with groups specializing in child-rearing.

“We don’t know how closely all hospitals can care for people” under the changes brought about due to the pandemic, the official said.

The Itami Municipal Government in Hyogo Prefecture and the Hiji town office in Oita Prefecture, among others, have also changed their approach to provide checkups to 4-month-olds.

In contrast, Oiso, a town in Kanagawa Prefecture, has made it possible for mothers to bring their infants to pediatric hospitals in neighboring municipalities as well as those under its jurisdiction.

The city government of Yurihonjo in Akita Prefecture has made individual checkups available to parents of 4-month-olds, 18-month-olds and 3-year-olds who are legally required to have their children undergo examinations by local health officials.

The Fukuoka Municipal Government, which has changed to individual examinations of 4-month-old babies, plans to add 18-month-olds later in July.

Although there are municipalities that have returned to group examinations, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry has included subsidies in the second supplementary budget for the current fiscal year to encourage their shift to individual inspections.

While more municipalities are expected to move to individual examinations, Hisashi Takasugi, head of Takasugi Children’s Clinic, pointed out there should be options, citing group examinations as being “very meaningful for (child-rearing) education.”

“There are cases in which medical institutions find it difficult to get involved in family matters,” he said, calling for municipal governments’ cooperation to consider sending health care nurses to hospitals for individual examinations.

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