How-tos | LIFELINES

Getting those shots in: Information on vaccinations in Japan

by Louise George Kittaka

Contributing Writer

An interesting query came to Lifelines from LS, a reader in the United States who was born in Tokyo and lived here until her teens. She writes:

I received vaccination shots as a baby and child through the Japanese hospital. I no longer have my shot record and want to find out what vaccinations were required between 1965 and 1975 in Japan.

When a woman becomes pregnant in Japan, she can go to her local city office to receive a small booklet, commonly referred to as the “Boshi Techo.” The booklet has two purposes: first as a record of the mother’s health during her pregnancy, and then of the baby’s progress after delivery. Vaccinations are also recorded in it, serving as a useful reference as the child grows up.

In 1965, the official title became “Boshi Kenko Techo,” which translates as “Maternal and Child Health Handbook” in English. However, from its launch in 1948 through 1965, it was simply the “Boshi Techo,” which is what most people still call it today.

The booklet is available in nine languages in addition to Japanese: English, Korean, Mandarin, Thai, Tagalog, Portuguese, Indonesian, Spanish and Vietnamese. Not all versions may be found at your city office, but they can be purchased for ¥820 through the Mothers’ and Children’s Health Organization.

What happens if a handbook has gone missing and you or your offspring need information on vaccines? In the case of a child or young adult, your best bet is the local public health center, who will probably have the information in their computerized records. However, a case like that of LS isn’t quite so simple, and only general information can be offered.

I called the National Institute of Infectious Diseases and was then connected to a call center for information on vaccinations, run by a private company on behalf of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. A helpful staff member looked up the information for our reader in the archives. I learned that when LS was growing up in Japan, children received vaccinations against smallpox and typhoid fever. Both have since been discontinued. There were also familiar names, such as polio, DPT (diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus) and the BCG (for tuberculosis).

The BCG can be a cause of concern to some non-Japanese parents. The shot is no longer standard in many countries, where tuberculosis is virtually unheard of. If a person is required to take a tuberculosis skin test for entry into a certain college or profession, it could result in a false-positive if they received the BCG in infancy. However, while incidences of tuberculosis in Japan are low, the occasional case does arise and so the vaccination is still standard for babies under the age of 1.

Like anything, vaccination schedules are subject to changes in popular opinion, and pockets of a population may miss out on certain shots. A recent case in point is a campaign to offer free rubella shots to men born in Japan between April 2, 1962, and April 1, 1979, an age group that missed out on public vaccination programs as children. A sudden increase in reported cases of rubella — almost two-thirds of them men in their 30s, 40s and 50s — is behind the campaign. If a pregnant woman catches rubella in her first trimester, it can have serious consequences for her unborn child.

I also learned that the HPV vaccine for cervical cancer, aimed primarily at adolescent girls, is still being offered free of charge in Japan. Heavily promoted from 2013, particularly to junior high school-age girls and their parents, the campaign was soon shut down by the government after multiple media reports of teens and young women experiencing side effects, including paralysis and seizures. Vaccination rates plummeted as a result.

Although subsequent research has suggested the reports were based on “psychosomatic reactions,” and the vaccine is recommended by the World Health Organization, it is currently not being promoted in Japan. It is, however, available upon request. As with any vaccination, consult with your local public health center or family doctor to get the latest information.

For more information on vaccinations, visit the National Institute of Infectious Diseases at www.niid.go.jp/niid/en. To purchase the “Boshi Techo” in English or one of the nine other languages it is printed in, visit www.mcfh.co.jp/faq/purchase/en.