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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Flu Threatens in Wake of Quake

KOBE, Japan -- Doctors warned of a looming flu epidemic among refugees shivering in freezing temperatures, and tempers flared Friday over relief efforts following Japan's worst earthquake in more than 70 years.

With the dead and missing now numbering more than 5,000, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama came under fire on 1995's opening day of parliament for what the opposition said was a slow response to the tragedy.

Not even an unprecedented parliamentary prayer for the victims deflected opposition demands for an explanation of why one of the world's most technologically advanced nations could not cope better with a natural disaster.

But mixed with the anger and fears of what lay ahead were stories of hope.

Rescuers pulled out seven elderly women who survived three days entombed in the debris of their homes. An anonymous man gave $200,000 for relief work.

Such victories kept rescue workers going in the grim search for survivors and stopped authorities from declaring an end to the hunt.

Temperatures remained at freezing point, setting off warnings by Kobe doctors that a flu epidemic, or worse, was hovering over nearly 300,000 people made refugees by Tuesday's earthquake, which registered a huge 7.2 on the open-ended Richter scale.

"We are very worried about a flu epidemic, especially among children," said Shunichi Fukuda, spokesman for the Kobe City Central Citizen's Hospital. "There are already a lot of children with fevers," he said.

Shigeo Kaneko, spokesman for the Kobe Steel Hospital, the medical establishment for one of Kobe's biggest employers, said because of a bitter winter many residents already were vulnerable before the quake struck.

"It is incredibly cold this winter and with the quake it's almost inevitable there's going to be some sort of flu epidemic," he told Reuters.

Delays in getting medicines and other supplies, including blankets, to refugees were among criticism thrown at the prime minister at the start of a 150-day session of parliament.

Aware that the opposition was poised to attack, Murayama admitted there was initial confusion in his government's slow response to the disaster and pledged a wholescale revision of the nation's disaster policies.

"It was my first experience and it took place early in the morning, so there was some confusion," Murayama told parliament.

"We'll revise things that need revising," he said. "It is imperative that we rethink and restructure our disaster relief policies for the whole of Japan."

The opposition suggested more lives could have been saved if the prime minister had been more decisive. "It is a shame that as the ultimate commander of the Self Defense Forces (Japan's military), the prime minister couldn't take faster and more positive leadership to save lives," said Toshihiro Nikai of the main opposition New Frontier Party.

By nightfall Friday there were 4,393 dead, 656 missing and 22,590 injured in Japan's worst natural disaster since the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, which killed 140,000 people in Tokyo and Yokohama.