Copper Tsuba Japan

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Japan's Aso Urges Calm as Flu Spreads

Prime Minister Taro Aso took to the airwaves on Tuesday, urging calm as the A/H1N1 flu virus spread across Japan's western region, prompting school closings and leading some corporations to cancel business trips.

Almost 200 people, mainly high school students in western Japan, have been infected with the new strain of influenza. Health experts say they are concerned the virus could spread.

Junior high school students wore masks as a precaution against the A/H1N1 flu virus during a school tour at the upper house of the Parliament in Tokyo Tuesday.

During a 15-second spot scheduled to run on television over the next week, Mr. Aso counseled against panicking amid the outbreak.

Thus far, the outbreak has infected more than 9,800 people in about 40 countries, killing at least 79 of them, according to the World Health Organization. On Tuesday, the WHO said it could take months for a pandemic vaccine to reach the market. WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said major drug companies committed to making flu vaccine and antiviral medications available to poor nations.

In Japan's western prefectures of Hyogo and Osaka, all public schools were closed, along with many nursery schools. Schools elsewhere in Japan canceled class trips to the nation's west.

Businesses in the west such as banks and retailers, including supermarket chain Aeon, asked clerks to wear protective masks.

The Japanese government has practiced containment measures since four Japanese returning from Canada on May 8 were found to be infected with the A/H1N1 strain. For at least a week, the government quarantined the infected travelers as well as passengers who were seated nearby on the plane.

In an effort to contain the virus, health authorities and nurses for weeks have been boarding every flight to Japan from the U.S., Canada and Mexico, aiming to spot any passenger with a fever.

With the virus spreading in western Japan despite these efforts, the government is considering easing the onboard check and quarantine measures. Instead, authorities are now encouraging people to remain calm, as Mr. Aso does in his television message.

NEC Corp., which has operations across Japan including in the west, has asked employees and their family members to take their temperature every morning. The computer maker requires that a worker stay home and contact a public "fever consultation center" if he or any family member has a temperature of 38 degrees Celsius (100.4 Fahrenheit) or higher.

Telecommunications company Softbank Corp. is ordering employees not to travel overseas even for private purposes. Softbank employees in Osaka and Hyogo must wear masks at work and anyone with a slight temperature isn't allowed at work.


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