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Officials urge calm amid Japan swine flu

OFFICIALS in western Japan urged millions of people in two of the country's largest cities to remain calm but take precautions to keep an outbreak of swine influenza that has already affected nearly 200 people from spreading further.

Officials have closed down more than 4,000 schools, from kindergartens to universities, and set up "fever stations" outside of hospitals to deal with patients who think they might have contracted the new flu strain.

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

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

Turning the city into a sea of surgical masks, thousands of worried residents made runs on drug stores. The government has endorsed the masks as a means of slowing the virus' spread, and most people on the streets are wearing them.

"It's better than nothing," said Kokichi Okino, a 68-year-old retiree. "I don't know if they really work, but every day the virus is spreading and that's scary."

As of late yesterday, Japan had confirmed at least 176 infections, most in Kobe and nearby Osaka, which is Japan's second-biggest urban area. Most were students, and none were in serious condition.

Japan is the fourth-most infected country in the world, after Mexico, the United States and Canada.

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

Health and Welfare Minister Yoichi Masuzoe has said airport quarantine efforts will be scaled down and Economy Minister Kaoru Yosano said he is considering measures to "minimize" the outbreak's impact on the economy.

But in the two most affected cities, officials struggled to determine where the outbreak originated and what to do about it.

Reports said dozens of the infected students had played in school volleyball games, but officials could not confirm if that had any relation to their infections. Experts were also investigating whether the domestic outbreak may have begun much earlier and gone undetected until now.

All 4,043 schools in Hyogo and Osaka remained closed Wednesday, and private companies were also taking measures to stem the spread.

Companies including Shiseido, Daihatsu Motor Co. and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. have reportedly ordered employees to limit nonessential domestic business trips, particularly to infected regions.

Health officials have warned that the new H1N1 swine flu virus could eventually infect millions of people. The World Health Organization has confirmed at least 8,829 human cases of swine flu in nearly 40 countries, including 76 known deaths.


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