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Tuesday, 20 August, 2002, 13:40 GMT 14:40 UK
Japan disease outbreak blamed on baths
Investigators at Sun Park hot springs
Bacteria levels were way above government limits
A traditional bath house in southern Japan is believed to be at the centre of an outbreak of Legionnaires disease that has killed six people and infected up to 272 others.

All of those infected, including 22 people who are being treated in hospital, had recently bathed at the newly opened Sun Park hot springs in Hyuga town, Miyazaki prefecture.


We're fielding a lot of calls from worried people who used the onsen, most of them from the local area

Toshiro Atae
Miyazaki health department
The disease, which recently killed four people in an outbreak in Britain, is a form of pneumonia caused by bacteria living in water droplets.

Visiting thermal baths or "onsen" is pastime enjoyed by millions in Japan, who think that it relieves stress and promotes health.

Local fears

The authorities say the precise cause of the outbreak has not yet been confirmed but investigations are underway.

"The exact cause is still under investigation by the prefecture. Because six people have died, the police are carrying out their own investigation," Toshiro Atae, a spokesman for Miyazaki's health department said.

But when examined last week the water at the hot spring spa was infected with more than 150,000 times more Legionnaires bacteria than permitted by the Health Ministry.


The Japanese are crazy about onsens, that's the big problem, they don't pay any attention to the water from a hygiene point of view

Takuro Endo
Japan's National Institute of Infectious Diseases

The Sun Park onsen had only opened a few weeks ago, but already about 20,000 people had bathed there and according to Mr Atae they are now all concerned they may have been infected.

"We're fielding a lot of calls from worried people who used the onsen, most of them from the local area," Mr Atae said.

"Other onsen in the area are being checked to see if they are following hygiene procedures, but there are a lot of them so it will be some time before we get the results," added.

In Japan about 137 million people stay at onsens each year and many more pop in for single visits, according to the Japan Hot Spring Federation.

The naked bathers scrub and rinse themselves thoroughly before entering the thermal waters to ensure that they remain clean.

Lax measures

But despite their precautions there are fears that many of the hot springs could be harbouring infectious diseases.

In tests carried out on 237 hot springs by Japan's National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID), 64% contained amoebae, which can serve as hosts for dangerous bacteria.

There are fears that cleaning standards set out by the Health Ministry are not being properly observed.

"The Japanese are crazy about onsens, that's the big problem, they don't pay any attention to the water from a hygiene point of view. They just want to go to bigger onsens," said Takuro Endo, head of the NIID laboratory.

See also:

01 Feb 01 | Asia-Pacific
15 Jun 02 | From Our Own Correspondent
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