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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Japan takes measures to head off contagion


Staff writer

The government on Tuesday heightened scrutiny of incoming tourists, warned Japanese living in Mexico to leave, and told those planning to go there to think twice after the World Health Organization raised the alert level for a new type of influenza.

News photo
In the know: People wearing masks wait Tuesday in a departure lobby at Narita International Airport in Chiba Prefecture after the World Health Organization raised its flu pandemic alert level to Phase 4. KYODO PHOTO

The WHO elevated its alert level on the deadly swine-avian-human virus to Phase 4, indicating a significant human-to-human pandemic risk.

In a hastily arranged news conference after the WHO's alert, health minister Yoichi Masuzoe acknowledged the latest swine-avian-human flu is a new virus and said the government will monitor the nation's ports of entry to prevent a domestic outbreak.

While urging the public to remain calm, Masuzoe said preventive measures, including washing hands and gargling, should be taken to avoid infection.

Prime Minister Taro Aso and his Cabinet held the first meeting of a special task force Tuesday afternoon to discuss how to respond to the rapidly spreading epidemic.

"We recommend those capable of departing from Mexico to do so" due to the lack of available medical support in the country and the possibility of restrictions being placed on future departures, Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone told reporters.

Nakasone said no Japanese has been infected by the deadly virus. Media have reported that 152 deaths in Mexico have been confirmed or are suspected to have been caused by the virus.

Cases of swine flu infection have also been reported in the United States, Canada, the U.K. and Spain.

Nakasone said the Foreign Ministry issued the equivalent of its second-highest travel alert, urging all travelers to postpone unnecessary trips to Mexico.

The ministry also advised Japanese living in Mexico to leave if possible, and if not, urged them to "refrain from leaving their home if unnecessary, stock enough food and water, remain at a safe location and conduct thorough measures to prevent infection."

While Japan decided Tuesday to carry out onboard inspections of passengers and crew arriving from the U.S., Mexico and Canada at Narita International Airport, the Foreign Ministry said it will tighten visa rules for Mexican citizens.

The Japanese Embassy in Mexico was to suspend its visa waiver program Tuesday and force Mexicans to apply for a visa in advance, rather than upon arrival in Japan, the ministry said.

Japan will also ask Mexican travelers to Japan to submit a medical certificate from doctors upon arrival and answer a questionnaire to confirm their health status, Nakasone said.

The Foreign Ministry also said extra masks and flu drugs will arrive at the Japanese Embassy in Mexico City to be used for Japanese residents and travelers if necessary.


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