Ministry official denies guilt in HIV affair

Akihito Matsumura, a former senior Health and Welfare Ministry official, pleaded not guilty Mar. 12 to charges of professional negligence in connection with the death of a hemophiliac in 1991 and the death of a liver disease patient in 1995.

Both died of AIDS complications after contracting the human immunodeficiency virus through contaminated blood coagulants imported mainly from the United States and approved by the government, prosecutors said. “I made my utmost efforts to deal with matters related to unheated blood products. I am sure that I have made no administrative mistakes that should be tried criminally,” Matsumura said during his first trial hearing before the Tokyo District Court. “Although I acknowledged to some extent that concentrated, unheated blood clotting agents could transmit HIV, it was believed at that time (the mid-1980s) that only a few infected people would develop AIDS, and I thought so, too,” he said.

Prosecutors alleged that Matsumura, 55, failed to take measures to prevent the infection from spreading further among hemophiliacs — such as instructing medical institutions not to use such drugs or ordering a recall of the drugs from the market — even though he was in a position to take such steps. Matsumura countered that he did not have the authority.

His lawyers said it should be the entire health ministry or the health minister and vice minister who deserve the blame for what prosecutors described as administrative blunders. Matsumura was just a mid-level official with limited authority, they argued.

Matsumura was indicted Oct. 25 on charges of allowing the use of concentrated, unheated blood products tainted with HIV. He served from July 1984 to June 1986 as the chief of the ministry’s now-defunct biologics and antibiotics division, which was directly in charge of examining and approving blood products. He left the ministry in July and is now unemployed despite his qualification as a medical doctor. He is the first person in Japan to face a criminal trial on suspicion of professional negligence during his career as a civil servant.