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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Kobe officials start limited measures to halt flu spread

Residents of Kansai meanwhile respond by stocking up on masks


Staff writer

KOBE — As Kobe confirmed the nation's first domestic swine flu infections, city officials instituted a limited number of measures to prevent further infections from developing, prompting Kansai-area residents to prepare for further possible outbreaks.

News photo
Just in case: People walk through Kobe wearing protective masks after the nation's first homegrown case of swine flu was confirmed on Saturday. KYODO PHOTO

But the response Saturday indicated Kobe officials still view the spread of the H1N1 virus as more likely to happen overseas than in Japan, as they had no immediate plans to institute the kind of quarantine checks at city-run Kobe airport that are present at Japan's international airports.

In and around Kobe Saturday, flu masks were flying off the shelves of stores near both JR Sannomiya and Hankyu Sannomiya stations, and the trains and department stores were less crowded than normal following news that a 17-year-old boy in his third year of high school had tested positive for the new virus.

Several Kobe residents said they felt uneasy.

"I'm not sure if I'm going to go to work in Osaka on Monday. If there are other outbreaks in Kobe, I may take a few vacation days if I can and just stay home. But I'll probably stock up on groceries this weekend, just in case," said Yuko Ohashi, a 25-year-old Kobe resident.

Two second-year students at the same school, a 16-year-old boy and a 16-year-ld girl, had preliminary tests that showed they were also infected with the new strain of influenza virus A, although the girl was tested Tuesday and was reportedly almost back to normal health by Saturday, Kobe officials said.

Kobe and Hyogo Prefecture officials announced nine steps they were taking to contain the spread of the virus and calm public fears. These included closing 75 public and private kindergartens, elementary, junior high and high schools, and universities in the city's Higashi-Nada, Nada, and Chuo wards, as well those in nearby Ashiya, until Friday. International schools in the designated wards, including the Canadian Academy, were also closed.

School trips scheduled for the coming week have been postponed, and the annual Kobe Festival, which was supposed to have been held this weekend, was canceled.

The city launched an information campaign asking people not to go outside, but to wear masks and wash their hands carefully. Worried about potential patients overwhelming medical facilities, they urged residents who feel ill to call special consultation centers in their wards first rather than going immediately to a hospital.

Beyond providing information, however, an official said the city had no plans, at least at present, to introduce the kinds of quarantine measures or body temperature checks at Kobe airport being conducted at international airports. Kobe airport has 23 domestic flights daily, including 10 to Haneda airport in Tokyo, six to New Chitose Airport in Sapporo, and five to Okinawa's Naha airport.

"We're offering information at the airport, telling passengers to be careful. But Kobe airport is not an international airport, so we don't have the same kind of checks as Kansai airport or Narita," said Shinichi Inoue, a Kobe city spokesman.

In neighboring Osaka, 30 minutes from Kobe and served by three separate train lines, municipal and prefectural officials said in the afternoon they were keeping an eye on the situation in Kobe.

Osaka officials are still dealing with three people — two high school students and a teacher — who returned home Friday from Narita airport, where they had been quarantined after becoming Japan's first confirmed cases of swine flu.

Kobe is operating a hotline for non-Japanese speakers seeking more information on the flu and health services available in the city. Call 080-6115-9901 weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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