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Editorial: Balance between anti-heatstroke, virus prevention measures needed in Japan

With summer just around the corner, it is time for people across Japan to exercise caution against heatstroke, while continuing to take heed to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. It is necessary to lay out meticulous measures to balance between these two health matters at the same time.

To prevent heatstroke, it is normally effective to get one's body accustomed to the heat little by little by having opportunities to sweat outdoors during a period when the mercury rises. However, the stay-home requests for coronavirus prevention this year have left people unaccustomed to the rising temperatures. It is important to start with light exercises such as walking outside to get one's body ready for the scorching summer.

The sight of people wearing face masks to prevent virus transmissions has become quite common in Japan. If people exercise with masks on their faces, however, it will take a heavy toll on their bodies, pushing up their heart and breathing rates.

Organizations including the Japanese Association for Acute Medicine have unveiled recommended measures for heatstroke prevention. One of them is taking one's mask off when appropriate and taking a rest. They also say it becomes increasingly important to get hydrated often because wearing masks makes it hard for people to realize they are thirsty.

At schools that have reopened after temporary closures to prevent virus infections, it is imperative to provide consideration to children's physical conditions.

A boy died from heatstroke at an elementary school in Aichi Prefecture, central Japan, in the summer of 2018, when the mercury rose to disaster-level high. In response, installation of air conditioners at school classrooms progressed across Japan. According to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, the installation rate of air conditioners at public elementary and junior high schools and other educational institutions stood at around 80% on national average as of autumn 2019.

A hygiene control manual recently created by the education ministry provides for thorough ventilation of classrooms and constant wearing of masks as part of measures to prevent coronavirus infections.

The manual allows schools not to keep open the windows of classrooms that use air conditioning, depending on the climate of the day, but it advises that classrooms be ventilated for about several minutes at least once every 30 minutes in that case. The guideline also allows children to take their masks off on condition that they keep a certain distance from each other.

It is essential for schools to respond flexibly to each case by carefully assessing the risks involved. Some local bodies are planning to have their students show up to school during the summer break to make up for the delays in their studies. It may be necessary, however, to cancel those classes depending on the weather of the day.

According to the Fire and Disaster Management Agency, a majority of people who were rushed to hospitals due to heatstroke between May and September 2019 were those aged 65 or older. Among them, cases of patients who lived alone stood out. This year, older people may have had less chance to interact with their neighbors as they refrained from nonessential outings due to the pandemic. Families and friends of older residents are advised to warn them against heatstroke on hot days by phone or email.

If there are more people who are taken to hospitals due to heatstroke, it will increase the burden on medical professionals who are already preoccupied with coronavirus responses. We should be sharing our wisdom for preventing heatstroke this summer across all of society.

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