- The Washington Times - Monday, May 18, 2009

TOKYO (AP) — The number of confirmed swine flu cases in Japan soared Monday to more than 130 as the government moved to shut down nearly 2,000 schools and companies discouraged unnecessary travel to quell the spread of the disease, officials said.

The outbreak in Japan went from just four cases over the weekend to 135 as infections were confirmed in the port city of Kobe and nearby Osaka, which is Japan’s second-biggest urban area. The new wave of infections did not have a clear connection to foreign travel, as the initial one did, and involved primarily teenagers.

None of the 135 patients were in serious condition, a health ministry official said.

Japan had worked hard to keep the new flu strain from spreading within its island borders, establishing testing centers at airports and encouraging people in high-risk jobs to wear masks and wash their hands carefully.

But those defenses appeared to break down as the number of infections has grown. On Saturday, officials reported the first case of an infection occurring inside the country — not being brought in from abroad — and it remained unclear where the bulk of the newly infected people came into contact with the virus.

Reports said dozens of the students had played in school volleyball games, but officials could not confirm if that had any relation to their infections.

NTV, a commercial TV network, said the new wave would make Japan the fourth-most infected country in the world, after Mexico, the United States and Canada.

Officials admitted the new figures were disturbing.

“We need to confine the outbreak locally, but we must admit it is getting difficult,” said Hyogo Gov. Toshizo Ido. Kobe, where dozens of cases were reported, is located in Hyogo Prefecture, in Japan’s southwest.

“We are issuing an epidemic warning,” Osaka Gov. Toru Hashimoto said at a news conference. “We must be prepared for a further expansion.”

In Tokyo, Prime Minister Taro Aso called a Cabinet meeting to coordinate the government’s response.

“We must be careful, but with quick treatment patients can recover,” he said. “We must respond calmly and appropriately.”

According to local officials, 1,466 schools — all elementary, junior and senior high schools in Hyogo — were closed Monday through at least Friday. Several hundred more were closed in Osaka.

Private companies were also taking measures to stem the spread.

The Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ said in a statement that an employee at its Kobe branch was confirmed as infected, and had been hospitalized with a fever. The bank has told most of its employees at the branch to stay home, and is operating at a scaled-down level with employees from other branches.

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

The H1N1 swine flu virus is a new influenza strain. Health officials have warned that it could eventually infect millions of people.

The World Health Organization has confirmed at least 8,480 human cases of swine flu in nearly 40 countries, mostly in the U.S. and Mexico, including 76 deaths.

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