Huge influenza outbreak in Japan

Japan is gripped by an influenza outbreak. Japan's health ministry reports that an estimated 1.6 million people were treated for flu symptoms in the week to February 3.

Epidemics at nursing homes

At a nursing home with about 80 residents in Gunma Prefecture near Tokyo, 35 people in their 80s and 90s contracted the flu and five of them died from pneumonia and other complications. The director of the facility, Fumiaki Yuzawa, apologized, saying, "We tried everything we could, but couldn't stop the spread of the illness. We are deeply sorry for the death of the five residents and for causing other residents and their families trouble and worry."

Epidemics at nursing homes have also been reported in other prefectures, including Akita and Hyogo, prompting the health ministry to issue a warning to facilities across the country and tell them to strengthen preventive measures.

An epidemic at a nursing home in Gunma Prefecture infected nearly half the residents and killed 5.

Dangerous complications

Yokohama resident Mayu Otaka has experienced firsthand how life-threatening the flu can be to small children. Eighteen years ago, her son, who was seven months old at the time, caught the flu and was hospitalized for two months due to a complication of meningitis.

Even after recovering, he suffered epileptic seizures and other after-effects, but was able to lead a normal life. When he was around 10, however, he came down with the flu again and ran a fever of about 39 degrees Celsius.

Otaka says, "He started shaking and his lips turned purple. After the convulsions stopped, he wouldn't respond to my voice."

He was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where the doctor diagnosed him with influenza-associated encephalopathy, a brain disease that can be fatal and often leaves serious after-effects -- epilepsy in his case.
"My son was in good health, but that changed in a single day. It was just unbearable," she says.

High fever widespread

Pediatrician and Jichi Medical University Professor Hitoshi Osaka says many cases of flu this season have been accompanied by fevers of 39 degrees Celsius or higher. He is seeing more patients, particularly children, suffering convulsions or delirium as a result.
He says parents should seek medical attention if their children have a high fever and get repeated cramps in short intervals or show delirious behavior. Osaka warns that high fevers could trigger encephalopathy.

Typically, a patient's condition suddenly worsens in one or two days, resulting in impaired consciousness or other serious conditions. He says, "There is no need to panic over a fever. But if a child with a fever of about 40 degrees suffers convulsions or becomes delirious, or if his or her temperature becomes 41 degrees or higher, it becomes necessary to consult with a doctor immediately."

Doctors are asking that parents be aware of influenza-associated encephalopathy in children.

Companies temporarily close offices

The spread of influenza has led to the closure of thousands of classes in schools and kindergartens nationwide, and the outbreak is showing no signs of abating.

Some companies have suspended business. An IT firm in Tokyo shut its doors for three days in January. The company instructed its employees to work at home to prevent further spread of the flu.

The company allows its staff to work outside the office at normal times, but it was the first time all workers were told to stay away from the office. The CEO, Satoru Ikedo, says, "If a company requires workers to come to the office no matter, it could contribute to the spread of the flu. The important thing is not where we work, but what gets done, and our efficiency in doing it."

Since the temporary closure, there have been no new infections. Even after the workers returned to the office, the company is taking precautions, handing out face masks to the staff and keeping the office humidity at appropriate levels.

Reasons behind the epidemic

Okayama University of Science Associate Professor Yukitaka Ohashi, an expert on the relationship between weather and flu outbreaks, says a cold snap in Japan from late December caused temperatures to plunge and that seems to have triggered the flu outbreak. He says infections spread during the New Year holidays when many people were on the move.

Ohashi also points out that the rainfall this year is less than usual, and that's another factor. He says there have been many days without rain and the January rainfall was less than half the seasonal average, leading to drier air.

The government is calling on people to take plenty of fluids and have a good rest if they catch the flu, and to wash hands thoroughly and wear face masks to prevent infecting others.