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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Pace of H1N1 spread in Kansai seen slowing


Staff writer

OSAKA — Although the tally of confirmed swine flu infections in Hyogo and Osaka prefectures surpassed 190 on Tuesday, the pace of growth in the number of new cases appeared to be slowing, and some of the patients were reportedly recovering.

News photo
On the go: Commuters in masks rush to work Tuesday morning at JR Sannomiya Station in Kobe. KYODO PHOTO

New problems loom on the horizon, however, as increasing numbers of people switch their concern from emergency health measures to the impact of the new H1N1 virus on their everyday lives, including education and the local economy.

As of Tuesday night, 193 people were confirmed as having been infected with the H1N1 virus.

The number surged more than 100 new infections from Sunday to Monday.

Most of those infected are junior high and high school students at Osaka and Hyogo prefectural schools. Emergency measures remained in effect, and people were encouraged to wear face masks and take other precautions.

Hyogo and Osaka prefectures, as well as the Osaka and Kobe municipal governments, have ordered schools closed for the week. More than 4,000 kindergarten, elementary, junior high and high schools are closed until either Saturday or Monday, as well as 61 public and private universities.

The educational and economic impact of the outbreak led the governors of Hyogo and Osaka to issue an appeal for central government help during a meeting with health minister Yoichi Masuzoe on Monday. Masuzoe later announced there would likely be a change in government policy by the end of the week.

Hyogo Gov. Toshizo Ido emphasized on Tuesday his concern with the current system, whereby people call a fever consultation center and then go to hospital if necessary. Hyogo officials said 103 people as of Tuesday afternoon had been confirmed as having contracted the H1N1 virus and that thousands of people flooded emergency hotlines Monday and Tuesday either saying they were ill or were seeking advice.

"I told the health minister the likelihood of the current system becoming more difficult because of the large volume of people descending on medical facilities was great," Ido said. "I asked the minister for measures that authorize home care for those who are mildly ill and assign hospital beds to those who are seriously ill."

Even as the central government moves to become more involved, some patients are recovering. By Tuesday morning, Kobe officials said 11 people who had been infected with the virus, including 10 high school students, had been released from hospitals.

In Osaka, some 70 people were confirmed as having the H1N1 virus and, like Hyogo, many people were wearing masks in public. But in and around the city center in the afternoon, some said they were more concerned about the effect the virus would have on the local economy and their children's education.

"Yes, we've seen a dropoff in business these last few days. The announcement that people should stay away from crowded areas has meant a noticeable decline in customers," said a sales clerk at the Junkudo bookstore near Umeda Station.

Parents, however, were concerned about what the school closures mean for their children. Some fear the unscheduled weeklong vacation will put them behind students in other prefectures.

"I wish school officials would explain as soon as possible how the lessons will be made up and when," said Toshimi Kurotani, a 37-year-old mother with two kids in elementary school.

In Kobe, the economic effect is related to education, as May is normally the time of year when many schools take study trips. Kobe-area hotels reported that not only business travelers but also a number of schools from around Japan have canceled, or are considering canceling, trips to the city.

Three Gifu schools have already canceled their upcoming trips to Kansai, and many more are considering the possibility. Some schools in Kyushu have announced they will not send students to Hyogo or Osaka this month, and schools as far away as Tokyo are also reconsidering their Kansai plans.

Nara, also a popular destination for school trips, is likely to see a number of cancellations, especially after 1,117 junior high and high school students there who have been on sick leave since Monday remain under medical observation.

A Nara Prefecture spokeswoman said the results of tests to determine if the students are infected with the H1N1 virus were still pending.



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