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Tokyo Declares Food Poisoning Outbreak an Epidemic

July 31, 1996

TOKYO (AP) _ Alarmed by the unabating food poisoning outbreak that has killed seven and sickened nearly 9,000 people, the Japanese government decided Wednesday to officially declare it an epidemic.

U.S. health officials have offered medical experts and other assistance to help the Japanese deal with the outbreak of the deadly E. coli O157 bacteria.

``The U.S. government ... has offered any assistance to the Japanese they would like,″ said John LaMontagne of the National Institutes of Health.

LaMontagne is among U.S. officials from the NIH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who are in Tokyo. He praised Japan’s decision to designate the outbreak an epidemic.

The epidemic designation, expected early next week, will let local governments use federal money to test people who handle food for the bacteria.

Doctors will also be required to report cases of E. coli O157 poisoning and to instruct patients and their families on how to disinfect their homes. Those infected will not be quarantined.

The Health Ministry said the designation may not curb the spread of the infection, which causes abdominal pains, bloody diarrhea and sometimes kidney failure. But it may help health officials monitor the spread and be more effective in informing the public.

E. coli O157 is spread mainly through food, but also through water and human contact.

``It may help and it won’t hurt,″ Toshiro Matsuura, who heads a ministry panel that recommended the designation, told reporters.

The last time Tokyo declared an outbreak an epidemic was in 1976 for Lassa fever, a deadly virus with symptoms similar to the Ebola virus _ fever, muscle pain, vomiting and diarrhea.

Health officials believe tainted school lunches set off the E. coli outbreak in Sakai, the hardest hit city, 300 miles west of Tokyo. But they have been unable to pinpoint the specific foods that spread it.

LaMontagne of the National Institutes of Health said it may be difficult to locate the specific cause of the outbreak.

``Historically, in these cases, one out of five is never solved. The fact they have not identified the source is not unusual,″ he said.

On Wednesday, Sakai city officials began collecting stool samples from the 47,701 children attending its elementary schools to test for traces of O157. Lunch staff and teachers are also being tested.

More than 6,000 of the 8,974 people sickened by O157 are in Sakai, although the disease has spread throughout Japan.

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