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Japan urges calm as flu surges

OFFICIALS in western Japan urged millions of people in two of the country's largest cities to remain calm yesterday but take precautions to slow an outbreak of swine flu that has already sickened more than 200 people.

A health official, meanwhile, said a 16-year-old girl in Tokyo was confirmed to have swine flu - the first case in the Japanese capital.

Tokyo health official Hideo Maeda told a news conference that the girl, who had been visiting the US, had a fever, sore throat and cough, but that her condition was improving. The girl developed a fever during her flight from New York to Tokyo that arrived on Tuesday, Maeda said.

As of late yesterday, Japan had confirmed at least 251 infections, making it the fourth-most infected country in the world, after the United States, Mexico and Canada.

Most infections occurred in the western city of Kobe and nearby Osaka, which is Japan's second-biggest urban area after Tokyo.

More than 80 percent were teenagers, and no one was seriously ill, the health ministry said.

Officials closed more than 4,000 schools, from kindergartens to universities, in Kobe and Osaka and set up "fever stations" outside hospitals to examine patients who believe they may have contracted the new flu strain.

Public warnings

Warnings are also being broadcast in train stations and other public areas advising residents to seek help if they are suffering from fever or other symptoms.

But officials also urged calm because the effects of the virus appear to be no worse than those of regular seasonal flu. Concerns are growing that an overreaction might flood hospitals with mildly sick patients and unnecessarily harm businesses.

"The individuals that have become sick with this new form of influenza have symptoms that, similar to those of traditional influenza, are relatively mild," Health and Welfare Minister Yoichi Masuzoe said.

But he cautioned that the virus could be deadly for people who have other ailments such as asthma and diabetes.

In Kobe, thousands of worried residents visited drugstores, turning the city into a sea of surgical masks.

The new wave of confirmed domestic cases has prompted Japan to shift its focus away from halting the virus at airports and instead spread measures out more broadly across the country.

The World Health Organization has confirmed at least 8,829 human cases of swine flu in at least 40 countries, including 83 known deaths.


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