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Efforts to prevent COVID-19 have again snuffed out the flu in Japan

Japan has reported very few cases of influenza infection again this year in an apparent reflection of widespread efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Still, experts are calling for continued vigilance, noting that cases involving other infectious diseases are on the rise.

The flu season in Japan usually starts around November and December and peaks in January and February.

According to the health ministry, the estimated number of flu patients between September 2020 and February this year stood at around 14,000, far below the usual levels of 10 million to 20 million.

The 2020-2021 figure compares to around 7,285,000 patients in the winter of 2019-2020, just before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the ministry, which receives flu reports from about 5,000 medical institutions across the country, there were only 189 reported flu cases between Sept. 6 and Dec. 5 this year, even fewer than the 263 cases reported a year before.

Measures to prevent coronavirus infections, such as avoiding crowds and close-contact settings, hand-washing and mask-wearing, are apparently behind the sharp declines in flu cases this year and last year.

The Japanese Association for Infectious Diseases has warned that “herd immunity against flu infection has not been formed” in the country.

Takaji Wakita, director-general of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, said that it is still possible for the country to suffer a surge in flu cases this season.

In order to prevent a possible twin epidemic with the flu and the coronavirus, Wakita said that citizens should receive both COVID-19 and influenza vaccines.

While the number of flu cases remains low, there has been an increase in patients with common childhood infectious diseases such as hand, foot and mouth disease (HFMD), herpangina and infectious gastroenteritis.

The number of infections with those diseases might continue to increase because many people do not have immunity to the diseases after the absence of outbreaks last year. It is also difficult to prevent children from getting infected with such diseases.

Japan has tightened its border controls in response to the global spread of the omicron coronavirus variant.

“The risk of a flu epidemic this season appears to be low” in Japan if the country keeps its current border control measures, said Reiko Saito, public health professor at Niigata University.

“The most important thing to fight all infectious diseases, including influenza and HFMD, is to continue taking basic preventive measures, such as washing hands and wearing face masks,” Saito added.

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