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Govt officially declares outbreak of new flu in N. America

Invoking the Infectious Diseases Law, Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Yoichi Masuzoe on Tuesday morning declared an outbreak of a new strain of influenza in Mexico, the United States and Canada, following the World Health Organization's raising of its alert level on swine flu.

The government the same day set up a task force headed by Prime Minister Taro Aso and comprising all Cabinet members to handle the situation and introduced a basic policy stipulating a number of measures to prevent the virus from entering the country.

The government measures, based on its action program to counter new influenza strains revised in February, aim to prevent infections by blocking the virus at borders.

Based on the policy, the Foreign Ministry issued an advisory urging people to postpone unnecessary visits to Mexico and told about 6,000 Japanese staying in Mexico to consider early evacuation from the country.

The warnings were issued under a newly introduced "infectious diseases information" category, designed to deal with bird flu.

The category is comparable to the type of information to be provided by the ministry in respect of a noncritical situation, but it is the first time that the newly introduced information category has been issued. It is not legally binding.

Under the policy, the government will tighten quarantine controls at airports and ports. It will isolate people who enter Japan from countries where infections have been reported and who are suspected or confirmed to be infected.

It also will set up counseling centers at health centers and other entities to prevent infections and obtain virus strains to produce the vaccines.

The government will suspend the exemption of visas for visitors from Mexico. The government plans to ask people entering Japan to submit medical certificates issued by medical institutions and fill out questionnaires on their health conditions.

The government also plans to issue warnings through Japanese embassies and consulates to Japanese visiting or staying in the United States and other countries where new flu patients have been found.

At an informal meeting following a Cabinet conference Tuesday morning, the prime minister told his Cabinet members to do their utmost to block an outbreak at borders and collect necessary information.

"This [the new influenza outbreak] is an extremely serious issue concerning our nation's crisis management, and we need to tackle this with full force," Aso said at the first meeting of the task force held in the Diet building Tuesday.

At the meeting, the prime minister told his Cabinet members to provide the public with necessary information whenever needed, take utmost efforts to block the outbreak at borders and ensure adequate medical measures are in place in case the virus does enter Japan.

"What's most important is for the public to maintain composure and handle the situation based on correct information," Masuzoe said at a press conference on Tuesday morning. "Basic individual efforts, such as wearing a mask and washing your hands, are important to prevent infections."

According to the government, no infection has yet been found in Japan.

As for about 6,000 Japanese staying in Mexico, Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone said at a press conference Tuesday; "I've not received any information [about those people being infected]."

WHO's revised standards of pandemic alert phases for new influenza strains

Phase 1

Viruses circulating among animals that have not been reported to have caused infection in humans.

Phase 2

An animal influenza virus is known to have caused infection in humans.

Phase 3

An animal or human-animal influenza reassortant virus has caused sporadic or small clusters of infection in people, but has not resulted in human-to-human transmission sufficient to sustain community-level outbreaks.

Phase 4

Verified human-to-human transmission of an animal or human-animal influenza reassortant virus able to cause community-level outbreaks occurs.

Phase 5

Out of the six WHO regions, a human-to-human spread of the virus into at least two countries in one WHO region.

Phase 6

The pandemic phase, characterized by community level outbreaks in at least one other country in a different WHO region.

(Apr. 29, 2009)
AP News
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