Step forward for hepatitis C victims

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda has decided to have the Diet enact a law to pay “uniform” compensation to everyone infected with hepatitis C from tainted blood products. His decision represents an effort to “achieve a breakthrough” in stalled negotiations over a court-mediated settlement of damage suits filed against the state and drug makers by hepatitis C sufferers. The decision is welcome, although it appears aimed at stemming the falling approval rate of his administration. About 10,000 people reportedly have been infected with hepatitis C due to the use of tainted blood products. The ruling and opposition parties must cooperate toward quick enactment of the necessary law.

In and after 2002, a total of 207 people who had been infected with hepatitis C virus mainly through the use of the blood-clotting agent fibrinogen filed lawsuits for compensation with lower courts in Tokyo, Osaka, Fukuoka, Sendai and Nagoya. By September 2007, four of the five courts had ruled that both the state and drug makers bear responsibility for the health damage.

For the sake of a compromise settlement, the Osaka High Court on Dec. 13 called on the defendants to pay ¥12 million to ¥40 million in compensation to current and future plaintiffs who were given tainted blood products during a period specified by the Tokyo District Court in its March ruling. But the current plaintiffs rejected the proposal because it does not cover all the victims. They also rejected a Dec. 20 proposal by health minister Yoichi Masuzoe that a ¥3 billion fund be created to help victims not covered by the Osaka court proposal.

As a lawyer for the plaintiffs said, Mr. Fukuda’s move is a “major step forward.” But several hurdles must be cleared in crafting a bill to settle the compensation issue. Unless the state’s responsibility is specified and an apology included, the victims will not accept the bill. Lawmakers also have to devise a mechanism to save victims who do not have documents to prove the administration of tainted blood products to them. Close consultations between lawmakers and victims will be indispensable to working out an acceptable solution.