New flu strain spreads in Japan

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Japan today confirmed 125 people, many of whom had not been abroad, had been infected with the new strain of H1N1 flu after New York recorded its first death from the virus and Chile reported its first two cases.

Thirty-nine countries have now confirmed cases of the flu strain, a mix of swine, human and avian viruses, the World Health Organization (WHO) said. The H1N1 flu last month prompted the WHO to raise its global pandemic alert level to 5 on a 6-point scale.

To date, almost all the deaths have been in Mexico. The WHO, whose data lags national tallies, earlier put the number of confirmed worldwide cases at 8,480, with 72 deaths.

The WHO said on Sunday it was watching the situation in Japan closely, but that it was not clear whether the outbreak would trigger the declaration of a full pandemic.

Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso recorded a video message for broadcast on television calling for calm while urging people to wash their hands, gargle and wear face masks to help prevent the spread of the disease.

"Experts say that if you receive timely treatment, this new flu is not something to be afraid of," Aso said in the message.

Health Minister Yoichi Masuzoe said the government was considering drawing up a new plan to deal with the virus, which is not as deadly as the avian influenza for which existing plans had been created.

Most of Japan's new infections were among high school students in the western prefectures of Hyogo and Osaka who had not travelled abroad, the Health Ministry said.

Schools and kindergartens were shuttered across the two prefectures but local governments advised businesses to operate as usual. Television showed most people travelling on trains in the area were wearing masks.

"We will not call for uniform restrictions (on business activities) but are asking for appropriate measures to be taken to prevent the spread of infection," Masuzoe told a news conference.



ECONOMIC EFFECTS FEARED

Kiosks at some stations in the region were closed, and a festival in the city of Kobe that usually attracts tens of thousands was cancelled.

The news boosted shares of drugmaker Chugai Pharmaceutical due to hopes for strong sales of the Tamiflu anti-viral drug. Shares of firms that make medical masks also jumped, though the Nikkei stock average tumbled by 2.44 percent.

In Geneva on Saturday, health negotiators from rich and poor countries had failed to clinch a full deal on virus sharing to produce vaccines, but said they had closed gaps on some tough political issues.

The H1N1 virus has given added urgency to the work of the inter-governmental meeting, set up two years ago by the WHO amid a scare about H5N1 influenza, or bird flu.

"Risks posed by the new flu are hard to predict as it's unknown how far it will spread," John Lipsky, International Monetary Fund first deputy managing director, told reporters in Tokyo.

"It could have a notable effect on Japan. In the case of Mexico, officials there say their outbreak reduced gross domestic product by 0.5 per cent," he said.

Chile's health minister confirmed on Sunday the country's first cases of the flu in two Chilean women who had returned from a trip to the Dominican Republic.

The women, aged 25 and 32, were receiving treatment in hospital and the government was contacting other people who had travelled on the same flight, Health Minister Alvaro Erazo said.

In New York, a school principal died from the new flu on Sunday, marking the city's first death from the virus.

The 55-year-old had been admitted to hospital suffering from the flu several days before, a spokesman for the Flushing Hospital Medical Center said.

Several schools have been closed in the New York borough of Queens after students and staff were infected.

Mainland China also confirmed its first case in the capital at the weekend, and state media reported a suspected case in the southern province of Guangdong, which would be the country's fourth. Hong Kong confirmed a third case and sought to trace passengers who had sat near the infected man on a plane.

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