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Japan confirms 20 more cases of flu

JAPAN'S health ministry today announced that 20 more teenagers have been confirmed as having swine flu, as the government shut down schools in affected cities. The country's tally is now at 25.

The students, who attend several high schools in the western prefectures of Hyogo and Osaka, tested positive for the H1N1 virus over the weekend and are recovering at local hospitals, health ministry official Takuya Nemoto said.

The news of the rapid spread of the virus at schools came a day after Japan confirmed its first domestic case of swine flu in another student in the western port city of Kobe, about 430 kilometers west of Tokyo.

The students have not traveled overseas recently, but tested positive for the same strain that has killed more than 70 people worldwide, mostly in Mexico.

The government immediately ordered schools closed in parts of the affected cities. Kobe also canceled its annual festival and other events planned for the weekend. Sales people at stores and restaurants and officials at train stations in the region started wearing masks as a precaution.

"We have not determined how the virus spread in the region, and we are doing our best to track down the route of the infections and contain them," Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura said.

Japan had put in force strict quarantine measures at airports to try to keep the virus from spreading, but the government's flu taskforce decided yesterday to scale down those efforts and shift the focus to containing the domestic outbreak.

Japan's first four cases were spotted at an airport quarantine. Three high school students and a teacher from Osaka had returned from a school trip to Canada in early May and were detected at Tokyo's main international airport.

Since then, hospitals have set up special "fever clinics" to separate possible swine flu carriers from other outpatients. Local governments have set up hot lines to guide people with flu symptoms. Newspapers also published graphics explaining the proper ways to wash hands and gargle.

Officials said they did not know whether the first four cases were related to the latest outbreak among high school students.

At a school in Osaka where several infected students attend, some 140 students have developed flu symptoms since early May and some classes were suspended, Japanese media reported. The 140 sick were not confirmed swine flu cases.

"Many people were infected in such a short period of time," Osaka Governor Toru Hashimoto said at a news conference. "We must be prepared for further expansion."

Experts indicated that the virus might have already infected hundreds of people in Japan.

The H1N1 swine flu virus is a new influenza strain for which people have no immunity. Health officials have warned that it could eventually infect millions of people.

According to the World Health Organization, at least 7,520 people in more than 30 countries and regions have been sickened by the virus, mostly in the United States and Mexico.


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