Amid its multiyear battle to halt the rubella epidemic, the health ministry has given priority to women in light of a feared vaccine shortage that could strike as early as August.
The ministry, which had been encouraging a wider swath of the public to get vaccinated, recently modified the policy by advising local governments to give top priority to women who wish to become pregnant, and the people around them.
A pregnant woman who contracts rubella can pass on the virus to her unborn child, possibly causing congenital hearing and cardiac problems.
Experts, however, are calling for vaccinating a wider section of the public in order to halt the prolonged epidemic. They say pregnant women can face infection risks anywhere, including on trains or in the workplace. Research shows that some 50 percent of babies whose mothers contract rubella by the 12th week of pregnancy are affected by congenital rubella syndrome.
Rubella cases in Japan have already topped 10,000 this year. At the center of the outbreak are men in their 20s to 40s who were denied or not offered routine rubella vaccinations in their childhood, in part because the government and Osaka University’s Research Institute for Microbial Diseases botched the development of the MMR combination vaccine in the late 1980s.
The MMR vaccine, which was supposed to protect against measles, mumps and rubella, was banned in 1993 because of severe side effects and sparked a lawsuit the government lost.
Although a majority of the women were vaccinated as children, they can still be infected if their antibody levels are low.
In the face of the epidemic, an increasing number of municipalities began subsidizing rubella vaccinations, although the health ministry decided not to financially support them on the grounds that some 80 percent of the people have already developed the rubella antibody.
As a result, vaccinations in May stood at around 320,000, which is about the same number given in a typical year.
A health ministry bureaucrat said the decision to prioritize rubella shots was a tough one, especially because it had been actively promoting widespread vaccinations.
When the ministry asked vaccine makers to increase production, they said it would take six to 18 months to fully meet the request, people familiar with the matter said.
Norio Omagari, head of the National Center for Global Health and Medicine, said the government should consider how to secure enough vaccine rather than attempt to manage existing stocks.
“The government needs to discuss ways to swiftly approve vaccine imports,” he emphasized.
Information from Kyodo News added.