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Saturday, March 6, 2004

Tanba kids stay cool amid bird flu as parents, merchants fret


Staff writer

TANBA, Kyoto Pref. -- As the bell rings to end the day, students at Komono Junior High School file out.

Heading toward a shopping mall across the street, they pass by a cluster of television news crews, who stand outside the school decked out in white face masks.

Komono sits in the center of the town of Tanba. The road beside it, which leads to Asada Nosan Funai Farm a few kilometers beyond, is closed off as officials continue their investigation into the bird flu virus there, which came to light last week.

Traffic is not allowed beyond the checkpoint right in front of the school. But apart from the huge media presence, police, the checkpoint guards, and the other vehicles going in and out, there is an air of calm -- especially among the students -- who go to and from their school without masks.

"A lot of parents and students at Komono are more worried about the fact that high school entrance exams are now taking place, and wonder what effect (the uproar over) the bird flu outbreak will have on their children studying," said a policeman stationed outside the school.

Mihoko Nakamura, who attends a high school in the town, also said there is little concern among her classmates.

"When news of the bird flu outbreak first broke, we were told by school officials to take extra precautions like making sure the toilets were extremely clean," she said. "But there is no real sense of worry about getting sick now."

Tanba has set up a hotline to answer questions about the virus and is advising people to heat chicken meat and eggs to 75.1 degrees before cooking to kill the virus. Nakamura said she had fried chicken Thursday, and added that many of her friends aren't avoiding it.

But if students seem unconcerned, some local merchants are uneasy or worried. On Friday, many wondered when the first transmission to humans might surface.

"My whole neighborhood wonders whether people will soon be getting sick and whether or not burying the infected chickens (locally) is really a good idea," said local farmer Eijiro Yamashita. "We're afraid the refuse will sink into the groundwater and contaminate it."

But some were less concerned about health hazards and more worried about the effect on the local economy. Tanba area stores, restaurants and supermarkets have remained open since the outbreak first came to light last Friday.

Tanba is known for wine and black soybeans and offers tours of both the local vineyards and soybean farms.

Tour buses pull up beside the mall across the street from Komono Junior High on a regular basis, but employees there said that business has been declining since the bird flu reports came out.

"Tour operators are telling us that people are canceling," mall employee Yumiko Ogawa said. "Even tourists who do come seem to want to leave pretty quickly. Let's hope that the cleanup finishes quickly."



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