A wave of influenza has been significantly waning in Japan compared with the previous year, government data showed, as many people have become wary of infection with a new pneumonia-causing coronavirus raging in China.

For the week through Feb. 9, the number of reported influenza cases plunged more than 60 percent from a year earlier to 44,737, according to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. During the same period last year, 129,989 cases were reported.

The health ministry also said the number of schools that were forced to close classes against a backdrop of an influenza outbreak was 1,760 for seven days from Feb. 3, sharply down from 3,204 compared with the same week in 2019.

The new COVID-19 coronavirus, first detected late last year in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, has so far infected more than 70,000 people and killed over 2,000. The city is a major business and transportation hub with a population of some 11 million.

Local media, including TV and internet news, have reported daily concerning the situation on the Diamond Princess, a coronavirus-hit cruise ship docked in Yokohama, prompting many Japanese citizens to avoid crowds, wash their hands, gargle and wear masks.

"Many Japanese people have become serious about taking measures to prevent infection with the new coronavirus. This might be one of the reasons why influenza cases dropped this year," said Yoko Muramatsu, a researcher at the NLI Research Institute.

In Tokyo, masks and alcohol-based hand sanitizers have sold out at pharmacies and convenience stores, as medical experts have emphasized that preventive steps against the new coronavirus are similar to those against influenza and colds.

"We have yet to have adequate data to identify the relationship between a fall in influenza cases and a rise in consciousness of prevention of the new virus among Japanese citizens," said Muramatsu, an analyst focusing on healthcare policies.

"But if the number of cold cases also falls in Japan this year, we may be able to say that growing fears about a spread of the new coronavirus have contributed to decreasing the number of influenza patients," she added.

In the Chinese capital Beijing, meanwhile, the pace of the increase in the number of patients found to be infected with the new virus has become slower recently, as residents are wearing masks everywhere from the experience of the 2002-2003 SARS pandemic.

Since early February, more than 1,000 new cases of the latest virus infection had been confirmed every day until Wednesday, but the total number of the patients in Beijing only rose to around 400 from about 150 during the same period.

Other pundits, however, pointed out that a trend of influenza in Japan this year has been originally different from that in previous years, regardless of an epidemic of the new coronavirus.

In autumn 2019, the Rugby World Cup was held in Japan. As a large number of people gathered from abroad, influenza spread in the country just earlier than normal, one of the pundits said.

"In any case, washing hands and using alcohol-based hand sanitizers are effective ways to reduce transmission of both influenza and new viruses. I hope many Japanese people will continue to have a high consciousness of prevention," he added.