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Friday, June 23, 2006

Hepatitis C victims demand apology for tainted blood, funds for treatment


Staff writer

A group of patients infected with hepatitis C when they were administered tainted blood-clotting agents demanded Thursday that the government apologize and fund their treatment.

News photo
Taeko Ideta (right), 48, infected with hepatitis C from tainted blood products she received after giving birth in July 1987, and another infected woman, who asked not to be named, pass out leaflets Thursday outside the health ministry demanding state help for all such sufferers.

In a visit to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry a day after the Osaka District Court acknowledged the state's responsibility for the infections, however, the victims only received a promise that their message would be conveyed to health minister Jiro Kawasaki.

On Wednesday, the Osaka court ordered the state and drugmakers to pay a combined 256 million yen in damages to nine of the 13 people who were infected after being treated with fibrinogen and other blood-clotting products.

Fibrinogen was commonly used to stop hemorrhaging during childbirth or surgery in the U.S. and Japan. The U.S. stopped using fibrinogen in 1977 and issued warnings, but Japanese regulators did not check the coagulant here.

A health ministry official said the ruling is being studied and the ministry may appeal. No apology will be issued until the case is closed, he said. One plaintiff said she was tired of waiting.

"We have waited 20 years for the state to take action. Some patients have waited 40 years," plaintiff Seiko Takeda, 55, said in a news conference after the visit. "I wonder if the state realizes that time is running out."

Lawyer Masahiko Komatsu, who represents a group of plaintiffs infected with hepatitis C in Tokyo, said that if the health ministry appeals, it could be another 10 years before a Supreme Court ruling.

So far, only 96 people in five district courts — Osaka, Tokyo, Fukuoka, Sendai and Nagoya — have filed suits blaming the state and drugmakers for their hepatitis C infections. The reason the number of plaintiffs is so low is because of the stigma surrounding the disease.

Since hepatitis C is transmitted through blood or other body fluids, there is a popular misconception that anything an infected person handles can pass the virus. Patients are afraid of being diagnosed with the virus because they fear they could lose their jobs or insurance coverage because of the stigma, which is like that against HIV.

About 2 million people nationwide are estimated to have been infected with hepatitis C, but awareness remains low and few seek tests.

Closing arguments for the Tokyo case will be heard on Aug. 1, while the Fukuoka case is expected to be ruled on at the end of August.

Komatsu said the rulings are likely to impact the health ministry's response to their demands, but the government has a strong incentive to keep fighting: It is estimated that 10,000 in Japan have been infected with hepatitis C from tainted blood-clotting agents.

The government could face a huge bill if it is forced to pay for the treatment of hepatitis C patients. Added on top, it may have to start paying the medical bills of people infected with hepatitis B from shared needles in state vaccinations, after the Supreme Court on June 16 granted five victims compensation.

It costs roughly 1 million yen a year to treat hepatitis C patient Tomoko Kuwata of Osaka, Kuwata said. The costs include hospitalization and treatment with Interferon, a group of antiviral proteins that enhances the immune system.

Hepatitis C has been dubbed the silent killer because it is rarely detected in the early stages. Symptoms can be mild for decades before leading to potentially fatal cirrhosis or liver cancer.

On Wednesday, the Osaka court said the state should have banned fibrinogen and similar coagulants after a mass infection of hepatitis C linked to fibrinogen hit Aomori Prefecture in April 1987.

The nine plaintiffs who won redress were given fibrinogen from the now-defunct Green Cross Corp. after 1987. The four who were given the coagulant before then weren't recognized.

"Drawing the line at 1987 is extremely unjust," said lawyer Kei Noma.



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