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Singapore: Children Can’t Go To Japan Because of Epidemic

July 30, 1996

TOKYO (AP) _ Singapore will not be sending eight 11-year-olds to an Asian children’s conference in Japan, fearful of exposing them to a highly contagious food poisoning epidemic that has sickened thousands of Japanese.

The decision, announced Tuesday, demonstrates spreading concern in Asia about the E. coli O157 bacteria. Nearly 9,000 Japanese have been infected, most of them children, and seven have died of the bacteria since June 1.

Officials who believe the bacteria started in school lunches have been unable to pinpoint the exact food. In addition, the bacteria also is transmittable through water and human contact _ contributing to Singapore’s concern about sending children to stay in Japanese homes as part of the Asia-Pacific Children’s Conference.

The conference hosts about 400 11-year-olds from more than 40 Asian countries for one-week stays in homes in the southwestern city of Fukuoka. Organizer Chikako Matsuo said no other countries had canceled.

Japanese news reports said Chinese customs officials were monitoring passengers arriving from Japan, but officials in Beijing could not immediately confirm the reports.

Ironically, Fukuoka has not had major problems with the bacteria. The health ministry reports just one case of illness in the city, and 25 in the province.

The center of the epidemic is the city of Sakai, where more than 6,000 people, mostly children, are sick with E. coli O157. More than 300 children remain in the hospital in Sakai with the infection.

After weeks of investigating, health authorities say they are close to abandoning the attempt to pinpoint the exact type of food that carried the bacteria. Officials have closed public pools and offered free treatment for people infected with the bacteria.

The O157 bacteria attaches itself to the intestinal lining, and emits poison that can cause bloody diarrhea, dehydration and stomach pains. In severe cases, the infection leads to kidney failure and brain damage.

Antibiotics can actually make the disease worse.

Also Tuesday, a kindergarten principal was given a suspended jail sentence for negligence in a 1990 outbreak of O157.

Two children died and about 50 were sickened after drinking bacteria-tainted water from the school well. The principal, Haruo Atsuzawa, 69, was given a two-year suspended prison sentence for failing to clean up the contaminated well despite the warnings of health officials.

The deaths, in Urawa outside Tokyo, are believed to be the first in Japan attributed to the O157 strain of E. coli, which was discovered in the United States in 1982.

Update hourly