The central and Kumamoto Prefectural governments announced Thursday they would offer financial assistance to about 3,000 Minamata disease sufferers who have not yet received any help to pay for their medical treatment, the Environment Ministry said.

The step is part of an aid package unveiled Thursday for victims of the mercury-poisoning disease that broke out in the Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, area in the 1950s and 1960s.

The two governments came up with the package after the Supreme Court ruled in October they were responsible for the spread of the disease after January 1960.

“The government expresses its apologies for hardships that the victims have suffered for many years,” Environment Minister Yuriko Koike said at a news conference Thursday. “The country and the prefecture will cooperate in promoting support for all Minamata victims, so that they can live secure lives in their communities.”

The disease was caused by the chemical firm Chisso Corp., whose factory in Minamata dumped mercury-contaminated water into Minamata Bay.

The disease killed and disabled a number of people and caused birth defects in children born in Minamata and surrounding areas in the 1950s and 1960s.

Chisso is currently paying all medical expenses for about 1,000 of the most seriously afflicted in accordance with the Compensation Law, enacted in 1974.

The victims suffer symptoms that include numbness and limited vision.

Separately, the central government and Kumamoto Prefecture are paying medical expenses for people with less serious symptoms. Those approximately 9,100 recipients applied for medical-expense assistance in 1996.

Their medical assistance came from the governments’ out-of-court settlement with a group of Minamata patients. The two governments’ responsibility for the spread of the disease was left unclear.

In the latest deal, the government has abolished a monthly cap of 7,500 yen on eligible medical expenses for people in a particular category of symptoms.

However, a number of sufferers did not apply for the coverage program mainly because they feared they would be stigmatized if they came forward as Minamata victims, according to the ministry.

The program announced Thursday is to provide financial aid for those people, who are estimated to number around 3,000. The new claimants will probably file applications for medical coverage in the fall, ministry officials said.

The new program will cost Tokyo and Kumamoto a total of 300 million yen to 400 million yen, according to the ministry officials. Of the total amount, 80 percent will be covered by the central government and 20 percent by the prefecture, they said.

Koike also announced Thursday that she will establish a panel to comprehensively discuss problems related to Minamata disease and to advise her on measures that should be taken.

Koike said she will set up the committee as next year will mark 50 years since the official recognition of Minamata disease in 1956, and the government needs to look at the significance of the disease in its historical and social context.

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