Hepatitis B talks progress

Talks between the government and a group of hepatitis B sufferers or their bereaved families, who had filed lawsuits for state compensation at 10 district courts in and after March 2008, have begun to move forward.

Following the government’s April 22 decision to accept revised recommendations by the Sapporo District Court for a settlement, an association of 727 plaintiffs decided May 2 to accept them.

Hepatitis B was mainly caused by mass vaccinations that began in 1948 under the Preventive Vaccination Law. The health ministry estimates that up to 440,000 people were infected through shared needles and are eligible for relief measures.

The Supreme Court in June 2006 ruled that the government had failed to order local governments to take preventive steps ahead of conducting mass vaccinations.

In January, the Sapporo District Court recommended that the government pay different sums in compensation depending on the degree of suffering — ¥12.5 million for chronic hepatitis B, ¥25 million for mild cases of cirrhosis, and ¥36 million for liver cancer and serious cirrhosis, including death.

A carrier of the virus who has not shown symptoms would receive ¥500,000.

A settlement looked imminent after both the government and the plaintiffs decided to accept the recommendations. But the talks stalled when the government started to insist that people who had suffered from hepatitis B symptoms for more than 20 years as a result of mass vaccinations had no right to claim compensation because the statutory limit of 20 years had passed. The government said they should receive about ¥500,000.

On April 19, the Sapporo District Court recommended that the government pay ¥1.5 million to ¥3 million to such sufferers. The plaintiffs, who had insisted that such sufferers be given ¥12.5 million, eventually decided to accept the revised recommendations. Their turnabout in favoring an early settlement was influenced by the deaths of 13 plaintiffs.

The government must realize that the plaintiffs made a difficult decision. It should make serious efforts to discover unrecognized sufferers so that the relief measures will be applied to more eligible people.