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Monday, March 28, 2011

Pregnant women fleeing to Kansai

Tohoku catastrophe, Tokyo radiation fears prompting relocation


Staff writer

OSAKA — Kansai area hospitals and the Osaka Prefectural Government say a growing number of pregnant women from the devastated Tohoku region, as well as some in Tokyo worried about the possible effects of radiation from the Fukushima nuclear crisis, are moving to the area to give birth.

In the aftermath of the March 11 quake and tsunami, and amid fears in Tokyo of increased radiation levels in the tap water and air, many residents of eastern Japan have temporarily relocated to the Kansai region, especially pregnant women.

The Osaka Prefectural Government said late last week that 149 women from Tokyo and Chiba, Kanagawa, Fukushima, and Miyagi prefectures had arrived in Osaka hospitals to give birth since the disaster, and forecast that the number could increase. Among them, 58 were from Tokyo, where the discovery last week of high levels of radioactive iodine in the water supply led officials to issue a precautionary warning that infants should not drink tap water or milk formula made with tap water.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government lifted the warning Thursday after the level of iodine fell, but as of Sunday, parts of Fukushima and Chiba prefectures were still being advised not to give infants tap water, according to the health ministry.

Radiation readings in both Tokyo and around the Fukushima plant are well below what experts consider dangerous to human health. But the government and media are sending out mixed messages, telling people the levels are not dangerous and yet warning about possible harm to infants.

Such reports, and a fear that the plant will continue to leak radiation over a wide area for a long time, are driving the increase in women in eastern Japan fleeing to Kansai to give birth, Osaka officials and hospitals say.

There are discussions under way in Osaka about what to do if the area receives a mass influx of Kanto residents requesting not only maternity care but other forms of assistance. Options mentioned include accepting possibly up to 10,000 evacuees from quake- and tsunami-stricken areas.

"The 10,000 evacuees would not be living in temporary housing. There are prefectural and municipal housing units available. But it wouldn't be a problem to accept that many. The Osaka mayor has also suggested that the city's Intex Osaka exhibition halls, near the port, could be used to house people," Osaka Gov. Toru Hashimoto said last week.

While accommodations may not be a concern, there are however questions about whether Osaka has enough doctors and nurses to treat not only pregnant women but a large number of displaced evacuees if necessary.

A Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry survey last year showed there were just over 13,000 doctors representing 40 different specialties — including 570 maternity specialists — at 629 hospitals and clinics in a Osaka Prefecture, which has a population of about 8.8 million.

That's a ratio of roughly one doctor for every 677 residents in the prefecture.

However, the survey also showed that there were only 309 doctors specializing in emergency medicine, or about one for every 28,479 residents.



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