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Sunday, Dec. 12, 2010


Vaccination policy falls short

Since the 1990s, the government has been reluctant to make vaccinations mandatory and to use public funds to cover the cost. This policy backfired when a new type of influenza hit Japan last year.

At present, there are safe and effective vaccines available to prevent haemophilus influenza type b (Hib); chicken pox, mumps and human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes cervix cancer; and pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV), which prevents pneumonia in children. But those who want to be inoculated must bear the cost.

Japan has also stubbornly maintained a policy of developing indigenous vaccines for the past 20 years, which delayed the introduction of effective vaccines developed in Europe and North America. For example, the government didn't approve the Hib and PCV vaccines until 2007 and 2009 — long after they were first introduced in the United States. These vaccines guard against bacterial meningitis, which afflicts 500 to 700 infants annually in Japan. Even with intensive treatment, 2 to 5 percent of patients die and some 20 percent suffer severe after effects.

The HPV vaccine was approved in 2009. Inoculating girls in their early teens would reduce the number of cervix cancer cases by 70 percent. Three inoculations are required, costing some ¥50,000 — a large sum for low-income families. Only a few local governments are giving subsidies. The central government has decided to provide subsidies out of the fiscal 2010 supplementary budget for the vaccine, but they cover only one-third to one-half the cost. The government should realize that the most cost-effective way to fight cancer is to prevent it, and shoulder the entire vaccination cost.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan has announced that public funds will be used to pay human T-lymphotropic virus type 1 tests for all pregnant women this year. The government should also implement a health ministry panel's proposal to provide mandatory PCV, Hib and HPV vaccinations. It should also develop a system to monitor for side effects and provide relief in cases where vaccines cause health problems.

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