Japan revamps policy to tackle new flu as number of cases rises to 302


The Japanese government adopted a new policy on battling new strains of influenza Friday amid the domestic outbreak of an apparently milder form of the infection, with the number of confirmed cases in Japan rising to 302.

The new policy, intended to allow for more flexible responses to minimize the impact on people’s daily lives and business activity, regroups affected areas into two—one with a limited number of confirmed infections and the other where infections are spreading rapidly.

It also puts an end to quarantine checks of passengers on flights from North America to Japan.

‘‘It is important for local municipalities to take flexible approaches in containing the flu in accordance with circumstances specific to each region,’’ Prime Minister Taro Aso told his Cabinet at a meeting at the premier’s office, where the new policy was approved.

The previous policy—amended in February and geared to address an outbreak of the more virulent H5N1 avian flu—called for wholesale uniform measures for affected areas, while the current outbreak of the new strain of H1N1 influenza, or so-called swine flu, has remained rather localized.

Municipal governments have been required to put patients into designated hospitals regardless of the severity of their symptoms, straining available resources in some areas such as Hyogo and Osaka prefectures, where reported infections ballooned over a short period of time.

The new government policy, based on the cases observed so far, says new-flu patients may be treated similarly to those who come down with seasonal flu, except for people concurrently having chronic diseases such as diabetes or asthma.

The revamped policy says in areas where only a limited number of infections are reported, all new-flu patients are hospitalized to forestall further proliferation.

In rampant infection areas, milder symptom patients are allowed to be treated at home and general practitioners, besides designated hospitals, may admit patients if steps are taken to prevent the disease from infecting others inside the institution.

Japan has conducted onboard inspections of passengers on all flights that arrived at its three major airports from the United States, Canada and Mexico—where a significant number of infections have been reported—since April 28. Passengers who tested positive have been quarantined, while those sitting around them on the same flight have been isolated for seven days.

These checks will no longer be implemented, except when advance information is provided about passengers suffering fevers and other flu-like symptoms is given.

But just on Friday, a South Korean man who took United Airlines Flight 881 from Chicago, was confirmed infected with the flu after arriving at Narita International Airport, near Tokyo, on Thursday, and has been quarantined at a hospital nearby.

Eleven people sitting hear him were also isolated at a hotel but the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry lifted the isolation measure in line with the newly adopted policy that no longer mandates such action.

‘‘Anti-flu medicines have been effective for the new flu strain, which seems like seasonal flu in many aspects,’’ health minister Yoichi Masuzoe said, commenting on clinical data regarding about 70 cases that have been detected in Osaka.

‘‘However, we should stay alert because some deaths have been reported among overseas patients suffering from combinations of the new flu and other diseases,’’ Masuzoe said.

On Friday, Saitama Prefecture, neighboring Tokyo, reported its first new-flu infection—a 29-year-old Japanese man, in yet another sign of the disease spreading in Japan. In addition, five cases were newly confirmed in Osaka Prefecture.

The cases brought the tally of patients in Japan to 299, with most of them concentrated in Hyogo and Osaka prefectures.

The Tokyo metropolitan government reported its second confirmed case Thursday.

Meanwhile, amid the growing impact on businesses from the outbreak, the industry ministry said it will take some emergency measures to financially assist mid-sized and small companies.

Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Toshihiro Nikai said new-flu cases have been gradually dealing a blow to local economies where infections have been confirmed as there were lots of cancellations at hotels and travel agencies.

‘‘In some shopping areas, people are gone,’’ Nikai said, referring to those who favor staying home in fear of the virus.

The ministry said it will introduce a safety-net loan program through some government-affiliated financial institutions, which will help smaller companies deal with the rapid deterioration of their business environment.

It also calls on those institutions and credit guarantee associations to relax regulations on their existing loans, including granting a delay in repaying borrowed money.

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