Japan relaxes flu guidelines as cases near 300
By Isabel Reynolds
TOKYO, May 22 (Reuters) - Japan relaxed rules for dealing with the new H1N1 flu on Friday, concerned that strict regulations could harm the economy and needlessly restrict the public, given that most of its nearly 300 cases have been mild.
Japan's plans were drafted with the deadly bird flu in mind, while studies show the new swine flu is behaving like seasonal flu.
"It is important to make it possible for the local government to respond flexibly depending on the situation of the region," Prime Minister Taro Aso told a meeting on influenza.
Under the new guidelines, suspected patients in areas where the number of cases are rapidly increasing would be allowed to go to regular medical institutions rather than only designated "fever centres" set up to deal with the new flu, health minister Yoichi Masuzoe told a news conference.
Designated centres in western areas, where the infection is widespread, have filled to bursting in recent days.
Schools in infected areas would not automatically be closed down, Masuzoe added.
Quarantine checks on airplanes will no longer be conducted in most instances. Japan also relaxed its travel warning for Mexico, calling for caution rather than the postponement of visits.
Only a small percentage of passengers were wearing surgical masks on Tokyo commuter trains though many people are still trying to stockpile them, causing a shortage. Some were selling off their stocks at a profit on Internet auction sites.
Yahoo.co.jp's online auction Website showed over 12,400 offerings of medical masks, with the latest bid for one item, 100 boxes of 50 masks, reaching 500,000 yen.
The H1N1 flu strain is a never-before-seen mixture of swine, bird and human viruses that spreads easily between people. It has killed 85 people and infected more than 11,000 in 41 countries, according to the World Health Organisation.
A total of 289 cases have been confirmed in Japan, most in the western part of the country and many of them high school students. Two cases have been confirmed in Tokyo.
There were recriminations over some failures to prevent infection.
The head teacher of a school near Tokyo, attended by two girls who were infected on a trip to New York, was reduced to tears at a news conference this week after receiving dozens of telephone calls criticising him for allowing them to go.
"All the responsibility lies with me," Takayoshi Maeda told reporters.
While some restrictions are being relaxed, politicians in the junior ruling coalition New Komeito Party were being urged to take precautions. The party's candidates in a July Tokyo assembly election were advised to limit their hand-shaking during the campaign, the regional Tokyo Shimbun daily said. (Additional reporting by Yoko Kubota; Editing by Valerie Lee)