Swine Flu Spreading in Japan, Forcing School Closures

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 20, 2009

TOKYO, May 19 -- To stop swine flu before it could sneak off airplanes arriving from North America, Japan dispatched masked health inspectors with fever-sensing guns to walk among passengers.

But the flu has taken hold in this island nation anyway, with rapidly increasing numbers of confirmed cases in its western region. It is now inevitable, experts said, that the H1N1 virus will spread to the Tokyo-Yokohama metropolitan area, where about 35 million people live and commuters are packed cheek to jowl daily on a vast network of trains and buses.

The government reported Tuesday that the number of H1N1 cases in Japan has reached 191 -- more than in any other country except the United States, Mexico and Canada, according to the World Health Organization.

Meanwhile, in Geneva, WHO officials said the swine flu virus is not growing as fast as hoped in research laboratories, which means drug manufacturers will not be able to start making a vaccine for it until at least mid-July. WHO chief Margaret Chan said drug companies would be able to make 5 billion doses of the vaccine, at best, in the first year of production, the Associated Press reported, which is not enough to cover the world's 6.8 billion people.

In Japan, illness caused by the virus has been relatively mild, and there have been no deaths. But, because of the spread of the virus, more than 4,000 schools in and around the cities of Osaka and Kobe have been closed for the rest of the week.

Prime Minister Taro Aso has begun appearing in public service announcements on national television, urging people to stay calm and assuring them they have nothing to fear if treated early.

As in the United States, the flu has spread most rapidly among students, and it appears that school closures here, as elsewhere, might not stop young people from hanging out together.

In Osaka, students formed long lines in front of karaoke clubs because they had nothing else to do, according to local news media. One club owner put up a sign saying that students from closed schools were not welcome. Also in Osaka, some family restaurants that employ teenagers have asked them not to come to work.

Quarantine inspections at airports will probably end soon, the government said, so that health officials can redeploy workers.

"We have to shift our focus to domestic measures in line with the spread of the flu," said Takeo Kawamura, Aso's chief cabinet secretary.

By sending health inspectors onto hundreds of jumbo jets arriving from North America, the government found four confirmed cases of swine flu among Japanese students and teachers returning from a trip to Canada by way of the United States.

But the government might have been looking in the wrong place.

A 17-year-old student from Kobe who had the first confirmed infection in western Japan had made no recent overseas trips, authorities said. He is thought to have been at the center of a cluster of infection that has spread rapidly in the past 10 days, after five high schools competed in a volleyball tournament.

"We can assume that the virus is spreading domestically already," said Yoichi Masuzoe, minister of health, labor and welfare.

The flu has also begun to spread to workers in convenience stores and train kiosks in Osaka and Kobe, according to the Yomiuri newspaper.

"As people other than high school students are confirmed infected, I'm afraid the situation has entered a phase of an epidemic," Chika Shirai, chief of the Kobe municipal government's disease prevention and sanitation section, told the newspaper.

Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company