Eight hours after Tokyo office worker Shungo Yamamoto started feeling feverish and faint, he got a diagnosis of H1N1, received antiviral drugs and embarked on three days of self-imposed isolation last month. “I knew it was influenza immediately” because of the fever and joint pain, Yamamoto, 25, said. His doctor confirmed the diagnosis with a nose swab test and prescribed five days of the antiviral drug Tamiflu. When he left the doctor’s office, Yamamoto put on a mask, bought a three-day supply of food, rented DVDs and headed home, where he stayed for the duration of his illness.
Japan’s aggressive treatment against H1N1 influenza, the result of hygiene standards, social etiquette and a willingness to test and medicate immediately, means the country has fared better than the U.S. or the U.K. in battling the first pandemic in 41 years. A WHO report shows:
- Japan’s mortality rate is 2 deaths for every 100,000 people.
- The rate is higher by 11 times in the U.K.
- 16 times higher in the U.S.
- 43 times higher in Australia
“No doctor in Japan would tell a flu patient just to go home and sleep it off,” said Norio Sugaya, a pediatric specialist at Keiyu Hospital in Yokohama, a port city south of Tokyo. Sugaya sits on a committee that advises WHO, a Geneva- based arm of the United Nations, on managing swine flu patients.
In the U.K., a study this month found patients typically waited three days to start taking Tamiflu, one of two medicines available to fight the new virus as well as seasonal influenza. CDC recommends that antiflu drugs be given to hospitalized patients, pregnant women and others with increased risk of complications. In Japan, doctors are advised to administer the medicines to anyone suspected of having flu, even if a rapid diagnostic test is negative, according to the Japanese Association for Infectious Diseases, a Tokyo-based organization of specialist doctors that provides treatment recommendations.
Japan’s status as one of the biggest users of antiviral medicines and its approach to treating seasonal and pandemic flu should be compared with practices elsewhere and the data should be published in English, said Lance Jennings, a clinical virologist with Canterbury Health Laboratories in Christchurch, New Zealand, who has studied flu for more than 30 years.
“If you have better capacity to diagnose cases earlier and are treating appropriately and early, you’re more likely to reduce the number of patients who will go on to develop more- severe influenza,” Jennings said in an interview. While the majority of pandemic flu sufferers got over their illness within days without treatment, 1 percent to 10 percent needed hospitalization and as many as a quarter of those patients required intensive care, WHO said on Dec. 4.
Tamiflu and Relenza (an inhaled medicine) appear beneficial in fighting the H1N1 virus, especially if treatment begins within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms, researchers said in a study in the New England Journal of Medicine in November. A paper in the same journal in December reported reduced complications, including deaths, among hospitalized patients treated with the medications.
A survey of Japanese patients in 2005 found 85 percent sought medical treatment for flu and 90 percent of consultations took place within 48 hours after the first symptoms appeared, according to David Reddy, who heads Roche’s influenza task force in Basel.
“These people do not wait until it’s too late,” Reddy said in a telephone interview. “Japan has to be the gold standard of management of influenza. It’s almost a societal response in terms of the way people modify their behavior.” Japanese have become accustomed during the past decade to wearing masks in public to ward off allergic reactions to pollen from cedar trees throughout the country, said Masataka Yoshikawa, a researcher who tracks consumer behavior at Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living, the research arm of a Tokyo-based advertising company. Japanese expect someone with a cold or flu to wear a mask to limit the spread of the virus, he said.
Some researchers say they are skeptical that Tamiflu is effective and concerned that the virus will develop resistance to the drug because of misuse. An analysis of 20 studies published in the British Medical Journal on Dec. 8 showed Tamiflu offered mild benefits for healthy adults and found no proof it prevented lower respiratory tract infections or complications of flu. There is little evidence to show that otherwise healthy people should be given Tamiflu routinely, the researchers said.
“Based on our analysis and other subsequent work, there is no doubt that the drug can reduce complications,” said Frederick Hayden, a professor of clinical virology at the University of Virginia School of Medicine in Charlottesville, who was one of the first doctors to study Tamiflu in patients. Missing doses or failing to complete a course of medicine increases the risk that a drug-evading strain will emerge, said William Aldis, an assistant professor of global health at Thammasat University in Bangkok and a former WHO representative to Thailand. In societies such as Japan, where treatment compliance is high, patients are less likely to contribute to drug resistance, he said. “So this is one more reason to think carefully before applying Japan’s approach elsewhere,” Aldis said.
Japan, whose flu season typically peaks between January and March, may face more deaths from H1N1 if the infection trend follows that of seasonal flu, said Hitoshi Oshitani, a virology professor at Tohoku University in Sendai, in northern Japan. “Japan will enter its regular peak flu season from now, and we have to observe whether the pattern continues or not,” he said. Oshitani, who advises WHO on pandemic strategies for developing nations, also credits the country’s school-closure program for helping battle swine flu.