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Monday, May 4, 2009

Experts say Japan can handle flu


By SETSUKO KAMIYA and NATSUKO FUKUE
Staff writers

While Japan has yet to see a confirmed case of swine flu, experts believe it won't be long before someone will be infected.

They say that although caution over the new H1N1 virus is necessary, the nation should remain calm and assess new information carefully.

"Some people seem to have the impression that a killer virus is coming, but it's not a killer virus. It's true however that it could spread" once someone catches the new flu, said Nobuhiko Okabe, director of the Infectious Disease Surveillance Center in Tokyo, part of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases.

"So we should not be carefree and must take necessary measures, but I believe we are not in a situation where people must hastily stock up on things from the market (to stay inside)," he said.

On Sunday afternoon, a woman in her 40s who returned to Tokyo from San Francisco tested positive for influenza in a preliminary exam held in Yokohama, where she was visiting a friend and developed a fever and cough. Further testing determined she was not infected with swine flu, the Yokohama Municipal Government said.

Earlier, four cases of influenza had been found in Japan. These involved a 25-year-old Japanese woman who flew into Narita International Airport from Los Angeles on Thursday, a 17-year-old male high school student who returned from Canada on April 25, and a Toyota Motor Corp. employee in Nagoya who had recently been in the U.S. as well as an American baby at Yokota Air Base who came to Japan on Friday.

All have tested negative for swine flu.

The initial response to news of the flu cases was fast and intense. Health minister Yoichi Masuzoe conducted a hasty press conference at around 1 a.m. Friday to report on the Yokohama high school boy, who was later found to have a case of seasonal flu.

The government is acting according to the basic guideline for dealing with a pandemic. But because the guideline was compiled with the lethal avian influenza in mind, high bars are set for the measures it is to take.

Okabe said that although the new virus is not the H5N1 avian flu that was the hypothetical enemy, caution is still necessary.

"This is not a situation where we have prepared for a major fire with many fire engines and it turned out to be a small fire. The fire is blazing up," Okabe said.

However, he added that information from around the world is showing that the new virus is milder than bird flu and Japan can deal with it should it enter the country with the preparations that have been made so far.

Because the plan was very rigid, leaders in both the public and private sectors should gather information carefully and decide what needs to be done flexibly, he said.

To prepare for an outbreak, the government has begun to consider asking pharmaceutical companies to start producing a vaccine to fight the new flu. But Okabe said making that decision is not a simple matter. Manufacturing a new vaccine could affect the production of seasonal flu vaccines, because the capacity for manufacturers to make vaccines is limited.

Every year, between 10 million and 20 million people are affected by the seasonal influenza in Japan, which can claim 10,000 to 20,000 lives.

"Right now when only a few hundred people in the world are infected, it is still difficult to tell at this stage whether the new virus will develop into an epidemic that thousands of people catch," Okabe said. "If not, then it is questionable to risk reducing the manufacture of vaccines for regular influenza.

"At some point, a decision has to be made, but we haven't reached that time yet," he said.



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