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Japan backs off as virus takes a mild course

JAPAN relaxed rules for dealing with swine flu yesterday, concerned that strict regulations could harm the economy and needlessly restrict the public, given that most of its nearly 300 cases have been mild.

Japan's plans were drafted with the deadly bird flu in mind, while studies show the new H1N1 virus is behaving like seasonal flu.

"It is important to make it possible for the local government to respond flexibly depending on the situation of the region," Prime Minister Taro Aso told a meeting on influenza.

Under the new guidelines, suspected patients in areas where cases are rapidly increasing would be allowed to go to regular medical institutions rather than only designated "fever centers" set up to deal with the new flu, Minister of Health Yoichi Masuzoe said at a news conference.

Designated centers in western areas, where the infection is widespread, have filled to capacity in recent days.

Schools in infected areas would not automatically be closed down, Masuzoe added.

Quarantine checks on airplanes will no longer be conducted in most instances. Japan also relaxed its travel warning for Mexico, calling for caution rather than postponing visits.

Only a small number of passengers were wearing surgical masks on Tokyo commuter trains though many people are still trying to stockpile them, causing a shortage.

The H1N1 flu strain is a never-before-seen mixture of swine, bird and human viruses that spreads easily between people.

A total of 289 cases have been confirmed in Japan, most in the western part of the country and many of them high school students. Two cases have been confirmed in Tokyo.

There were recriminations over some failures to prevent infection. The head teacher of a school near Tokyo, attended by two girls who were infected on a trip to New York, was reduced to tears at a news conference this week after receiving dozens of telephone calls criticizing him for allowing them to go.

While some restrictions are being relaxed, politicians in the junior ruling coalition New Komeito Party were being urged to take precautions. The party's candidates in a July Tokyo assembly election were advised to limit their hand-shaking during the campaign, according to the regional Tokyo Shimbun daily.


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