Numbers of Swine Flu Cases Surge in Japan

20 May 2009

Passengers wear masks during morning rush hour in Sannomiya, Kobe, western Japan, 20 May 2009
Passengers wear masks during morning rush hour in Sannomiya, Kobe, western Japan, 20 May 2009
Japan is on high alert after a sudden surge in cases of the swine influenza A-H1N1 virus. The government has confirmed more than 200 cases now - that's up from 4 last week. The new cases are all in the country's western region.

Prime Minister Taro Aso urged calm in television ads, calling on the public to avoid panic amid rising concerns of an h1n1 flu outbreak.

The government took to the airwaves after more than 200 new cases were confirmed in just 4 days.

The cases have all been confined to Japan's western prefectures Osaka and Hyogo. The Health Ministry says most patients are middle and high school students, but they don't know how the virus spread. Earlier this week local leaders shut down all public schools and more than 6 dozen universities. But on Wednesday Osaka governor, Toru Hashimoto, announced those schools would reopen next week.

He said it was important to move forward with classes, after a week long halt.

The government is trying to quell fears while proceeding with caution. It is worried about the virus's economic impact, with schools cancelling field trips and with reports that companies like Shiseido and Mitsubishi ordered employees to limit business trips.

Public "Fever consultation" centers and local hospitals say they're overwhelmed with concerned patients. That prompted Hyogo Governor Toshizo Ido to appeal for central government help.

Those concerns are quickly spreading beyond western Japan. Outside a crowded train station in Tokyo, Junko Sato hid behind 2 masks.

"It's a matter of time before it gets to Tokyo. To protect myself I wash my hands every opportunity I get. I gargle with mouthwash. I'm especially worried about my 5 year old nephew who lives with me," said Sato.

Life is returning to normal in at least one area. The Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare plans to scale back inspections on flights at the country's airports. The changes could come at the end of the week. A top official says the first 4 cases of the virus may have been found at Narita Airport, but he says the main goal now is to stop the spread of the virus.