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A Health Ministry panel on Friday called on people believed to be at risk of having been infected with the hepatitis virus to undergo tests, but recommended that the government not shoulder the cost of the screening.

The recommendations are part of a comprehensive government policy aimed at halting the spread of hepatitis in Japan.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry panel, chaired by Takashi Sugimura, president emeritus of the National Cancer Center, was asked to advise on a ministerial blueprint drawn up to contain the disease.

The crux of the ministry’s proposal was a publicity campaign to encourage people in high-risk groups — particularly recipients of blood transfusions and intravenous drug users — to undergo testing for the disease.

The panel also endorsed the aspect of the plan that proposes test recipients shoulder the costs themselves.

The ministry’s position has been opposed by some health care activists who want everyone aged above 40 to have access to free hepatitis tests.

The ministry has thus far only agreed to pay for screening of people who received blood products tainted with hepatitis at hospitals.

According to the Health Ministry, some 2 million people in Japan are believed to be infected with the hepatitis C virus and some 1.5 million with hepatitis B virus.

Ministry officials say carriers of hepatitis B and hepatitis C may not be aware of their condition until they are struck by cirrhosis or liver cancer. These symptoms may appear anywhere between several years after infection to 20 years later.

The proposal emphasizes the importance of individuals at risk monitoring their own health, with the government’s role defined primarily as one of public education on the potential health risks.

The panel’s recommendation says the government should be responsible for determining whether patients who have been treated with unheated blood products — a group deemed to face a high risk of hepatitis — have actually been infected.

The ministry argues that focusing on such high-risk patients would help doctors track the spread of hepatitis.

Individuals who may be at risk as a result of having received blood transfusions before the 1992 testing policy for hepatitis was in place, or people who may have been infected through drug abuse or body piercing, would have to pay for their own tests.

“While they themselves and their families may be aware of being infected, it is difficult to give them an official designation,” ministry officials said.

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