Hotline flooded with calls over tainted blood fears

A health ministry hotline has been flooded with calls from people nationwide worried about whether they have hepatitis C, after the government announced Thursday that it has a list of nearly 7,000 medical institutions that handled the tainted blood coagulant fibrinogen before 1994.

According to ministry officials, in the eight hours to midnight Thursday, it received 198 calls, 149 of them from former patients of hospitals on the list. And since Friday newspapers hit the street with news of the list, the 20 phone lines have kept ringing, they said.

About 290,000 people were given fibrinogen, which was distributed by the now-defunct Green Cross Corp., between 1980 to 2001 and around 10,000 have developed hepatitis C, according to an estimate by Mitsubishi Pharma Corp., which absorbed Green Cross.

Thursday’s list from the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry identifies about 6,600 medical institutions — about 40 percent of all hospitals in Japan — that have acknowledged they had stocked the coagulant.

Some of the questions callers have been asking are how to see the list, how they could be tested for hepatitis C and whether hospitals would tell them if they had been given fibrinogen. One caller underwent surgery at a medical institution not on the list, but was worried nonetheless, officials said.

Health minister Hidehisa Otsuji said Friday the government will form a panel of experts to come up with measures to prevent the spread of hepatitis C.

Speaking at a news conference after Friday’s Cabinet meeting, Otsuji said the government will expand testing for the virus and work harder to come up with treatment methods.

“We will do our utmost to boost measures to combat the disease and will reinforce calls for people to be tested,” he said, singling out those who gave birth, underwent surgery or were treated for heavy bleeding before 1994 — the year a process was introduced to ensure any virus in the coagulant was killed, making it safe for use.

The ministry information line is (03) 3595-2297. It is accessible between 8:30 a.m. and 8 p.m. weekdays, but the ministry will also take calls this weekend.