In the wake of the recent ground-breaking out-of-court settlement with people who contracted hepatitis C from tainted blood products, the government will face a fresh legal battle waged by hepatitis B carriers.
People who are believed to have contracted hepatitis B through mandatory vaccination against infectious diseases, including polio, measles and influenza, plan to file a series of damages lawsuits nationwide against the government.
Spearheading the move, several hepatitis B carriers will file suit Friday with the Sapporo District Court, demanding the state pay each plaintiff from ¥15 million to ¥60 million in compensation and take relief measures to help them treat the disease.
“I believe there are a lot of hepatitis B patients who have faced discrimination” due to the public misconception that the virus can be easily transmitted, said a 34-year-old Ibaraki Prefecture woman with hepatitis B who plans to join the Sapporo suit. “There must be many patients who have been struggling with the disease (alone).
“I hope that this legal battle makes the public recognize that the main cause of the infection was vaccination” and that anyone could have contracted it in this manner.
With proper understanding of the disease, hepatitis B patients can at last talk about it freely, she said.
According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, there are more than 1 million hepatitis B carriers in Japan.
Hepatitis B or C is a serious disease that weakens the liver. Its symptoms include fatigue, poor appetite and nausea, but they can be so mild that carriers of either disease may be unaware of their infection. The carriers can develop chronic hepatitis, which can progress into cirrhosis and then liver cancer.
About 10 percent to 15 percent of hepatitis B carriers develop chronic hepatitis, but the corresponding figure for hepatitis C carriers rises to 65 percent to 70 percent.
A majority of hepatitis B carriers in Japan probably contracted the virus through group vaccinations, said Shinsho Yoshiba, a professor of gastroenterological medicine at Showa University Fujigaoka Hospital in Yokohama.
Mandatory vaccinations helped prevent infectious diseases from spreading after the end of World War II. The diseases targeted included typhoid, diphtheria, smallpox, polio, influenza and measles.
Until the mid-1970s, however, when disposable needles and syringes became available, sharing syringes and needles with others had been a common practice during group vaccinations at public health centers and clinics, according to Yoshiba, an expert on hepatitis.
The Ibaraki woman may be one of the unfortunate cases who contracted hepatitis B through a group vaccination. She was diagnosed with the disease over a decade ago when she received an annual medical checkup as a university student in Sapporo.
Her doctor told her she probably contracted the virus via a group vaccination she received as an infant because she had never suffered from a serious disease or had injuries requiring a blood transfusion and her mother is not a hepatitis B carrier.
She has fortunately not experienced serious symptoms to date, but has suffered from the psychological strain of being a carrier of the disease.
She needs to take care not to work too hard because an excessive workload could lead to severe hepatitis B symptoms. She is also advised to get a regular medical checkup once every three months. In addition, her husband and two children have been vaccinated against the disease, she said.
Hepatitis B is not transmitted through ordinary social contact. Mother-child transmission can be treated by vaccinating newborns to prevent them from becoming carriers. It is also possible for infection to take place through sexual intercourse. When a hepatitis B carrier marries, the spouse is advised to receive a vaccination to avoid infection.
Professor Yoshiba blamed the government for spreading hepatitis B among the population, noting authorities could have taken action earlier to prevent the infections, because the World Health Organization warned in 1953 that hepatitis viruses can be contracted by sharing syringes or needles, he said.
“The government was directly involved in the mandatory vaccinations and bears a heavy responsibility for spreading the infections,” Yoshiba said.
The argument has been supported by the Supreme Court. In 2006, the top court recognized that five hepatitis B carriers, who filed a damages lawsuit with the Sapporo District Court in 1989, contracted the virus through group vaccinations and ordered the state to pay ¥5.5 million in compensation to each plaintiff.
Yoshiba said that it is natural to presume that there are other hepatitis B carriers who contracted it through mandatory group vaccinations.
But a health ministry official said that the ruling only applies to the five plaintiffs and the ministry needs to examine each case on its merits if more hepatitis B carriers file similar suits.
Takahiro Okuizumi, one of the lawyers for the hepatitis B plaintiffs, said the planned lawsuits will put pressure on the government to take relief measures to support victims of group vaccinations as it agreed in January with hepatitis C plaintiffs who contracted the disease from tainted blood clotting agents.
The hepatitis B plaintiffs will demand that the government shoulder medical expenses that they have to pay for treatment and provide financial assistance to patients who cannot work due to the disease, he said.
The infections could have been prevented if the government strictly regulated the sterilization of syringes and needles each time by, for instance, boiling them, Okuizumi said.
“There must be a great number of potential hepatitis B carriers” who contracted the disease through mandatory vaccinations, he said. “The problem is that the government has not taken any measures to help them.”