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Elderly in hospitals, care homes, children at risk as flu strikes 3.29 million

TOKYO -- With flu season reaching its peak, there have been cases of group infection or death of vulnerable elderly people and children, as well as cases of ill people falling in a haze.

An estimated 1.64 million people were diagnosed with influenza during the one week period ending on Jan. 13, while total cases this winter ballooned to some 3.29 million, and the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare is calling for caution.

As of Jan. 17, 35 residents of the special elderly care facility "Eimei" in Maebashi, Gunma Prefecture, northwest of Tokyo, had been infected, and five patients in their 80s and 90s had died. According to the municipal public health center, the deaths were caused by worsening pneumonia or old age, but there is a possibility that the flu was a factor.

Meanwhile, in Akita Prefecture in northern Japan, 30 people at the Oyu rehabilitation onsen hoy spring hospital in the city of Kazuno, and 13 at a special elderly care home in the town of Kozaka, caught the flu. Two women, one in her 90s and the other in her 80s, died.

While there are cases when the cause of death cannot be directly linked to the virus, there are many examples where the flu can exacerbate existing conditions of elderly people with little physical strength. There are facilities taking steps such as restricting visitors or prohibiting patients from leaving the premises. Some nursing care homes have vaccinated residents, patients, employees and others but failed to prevent group infections or spreading the virus further.

The virus is not just hitting the elderly. A boy in the fourth grade in northern Nagano Prefecture, in central Japan, fell ill on Jan. 12. His condition deteriorated rapidly and he died the following day of what appears to have been brain illness caused by the flu. In Tsurugashima, Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo, a 12-year-old boy who was staying home due to the flu fell from his family's third-floor apartment on Jan. 22. He sustained minor injuries.

But on the morning of the same day, a 37-year-old woman fell from the Tokyo Metro Hibiya Line platform at Naka-meguro Station, and was killed by an oncoming train. The influenza virus was detected in her body, and the Metropolitan Police Department's Meguro Police Station is investigating the possibility that her poor health condition led to the fall.

With the rise in patients and group infections at care facilities this season, the health ministry has called for prefectural governments to inform such homes of infection countermeasure manuals and implement other policies to prevent further spread of the virus.

Many of the group infections at such locations come from carriers of the virus bringing it into the facility, and being mindful of the health of new residents, visitors and employees is extremely important. If there is an outbreak at a facility, the Japanese Association for Infectious Diseases suggests that, with permission from the residents who came in contact with the patient, administering flu medication such as Tamiflu and other preventative measures should be taken.

When infected with influenza, breathing can become painful and a patient could develop fatal pneumonia. Because the virus also worsens heart disease, diabetes and other health conditions, influenza is an especially serious risk to those already dealing with another disease. In 2017, 2,596 people nationwide died from the flu.

The virus can spread through mucus from sneezing or coughing, as well as infected persons touching items such as doorknobs. The most effective way to prevent coming down with the flu is to wash hands thoroughly and often. Along with gargling, wearing surgical masks to protect from other people's coughs and sneezes is also useful. While these masks cannot protect an unaffected person wearing it from flu viruses, it prevents a person from touching their mouth or nose with their hands after being in contact with surfaces that could carry the virus.

(Japanese original by Takashi Noda, Medical Welfare Department)

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