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Med experts skeptical over Japan PM's request to close all schools, claim it's 'baseless'

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announces the government's plan to request all schools in Japan to close from March 2 until spring break during a meeting of the coronavirus countermeasure task force headquarters at the prime minister's office in Tokyo. (Mainichi/Masahiko Kawata)

TOKYO -- Many medical experts have raised questions over Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's request to close all schools in Japan from March 2 until spring break as a measure to prevent the new coronavirus from further spreading, claiming that the plan is "scientifically baseless."

"It was a political decision and was not a proposal made based on scientific knowledge," said Masaki Yoshida, professor at the Jikei University School of Medicine who chairs the Japanese Society for Infection Prevention and Control, of Abe's abrupt request announced on Feb. 27.

Generally speaking, class cancellations could be effective in preventing the further spread of infections. Multiple experts have admitted that Japan's northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido, which has the highest number of confirmed infections in any of the 47 prefectures in the country, needed to temporarily close down local schools to contain the viral outbreak. However, the purpose of schools in areas with no confirmed cases canceling classes remains unknown.

When a new type of influenza spread throughout Osaka Prefecture in 2009, all schools in the prefecture closed down for a week. The spread of infections slowed down afterwards, but doctor Yoshida points out that it is unknown if we could expect the same kind of effect with the latest nationwide school closures.

Nobuhiko Okabe, head of the Kawasaki City Health and Safety Research Center just south of Tokyo, who is an expert on infectious diseases, is also skeptical about the government's decision, saying, "Factors such as the number of infected people and situations surrounding families are unique to each region. School cancellations are supposed to be decided on a regional basis, not across the board."

In fact, many experts have demanded that the government present a scientific basis for the school closures. Koji Wada, a public health professor at the International University of Health and Welfare, points out that the nationwide school closures "have a significant social impact and the initiative needs to be understood by society by allowing discussion. The government should consult with experts and present evidence that shows the move could be effective."

As pointed out by virology professor Jiro Yasuda at Nagasaki University, the government's move was problematic because it provided no plans for cases where children's guardians could not get time off work while they are out of school and the effects of the blanket shutdown on schools has already become apparent. At a hospital in the Hokkaido city of Obihiro, where schools closed down before the national government announced its plan, nurses with children have not been able to come to work, and the facility stopped accepting outpatients from Feb. 28.

Wada also argued that the outbreak was "not something that will cool down in a week or two, as the virus is spreading around the world," saying that it is difficult to find the right time to open schools again. The impact on society will only grow if they are closed for a long time.

While the government has asked all elementary, junior high and high schools in Japan to shut down, it did not extend the same request to afterschool facilities or day care centers, raising concerns that it could drive a large number of children in a community into one place.

Kunimitsu Kakiuchi, professor emeritus at Meisei University in suburban Tokyo, who runs an afterschool facility and day care center, told the Mainichi Shimbun, "Children often come into physical contact with each other. It scares me to think if one of them gets infected."

(Japanese original by Go Kumagai, Shogo Takagi, Mizuki Osawa, Kaori Owada and Yuki Ogawa, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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