National / Science & Health

Despite Japan's push to raise awareness of rubella outbreak, free tests going largely unused

by Masumi Koizumi

Staff Writer

Despite the government’s continued push to raise awareness of a rubella outbreak, only about 8 percent of men age 40 to 47 — who are most vulnerable to being infected — have used coupons for free antibody tests, health ministry data has shown.

The number of rubella cases nationwide declined for the fourth-straight year to 91 in 2017, but in 2018 the figure surged to 2,946. This marked the second-highest level since 2008, when current survey methods began. As of the 38th week of this year, there were 2,196 cases nationwide. Many of the patients were men in their 30s to 50s who did not receive vaccinations as children.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry has decided to make the test for rubella antibodies and vaccinations free, in principle, for men between 40 and 57 years of age for three years through the end of fiscal 2021. As a first step, in the current fiscal year, coupons were to be distributed through local governments to about 6.46 million men born between April 2, 1972, and April 1, 1979. Almost all the coupons have been handed out.

The ministry figures showed that 8.4 percent of the targeted men, or 544,315 people, have undergone testing, while about 1.5 percent, or 97,265 people, received shots between April and July.

“The hurdle remains high because the men in the targeted age range are prime-age workers, so it is difficult for them to find time to do it,” ministry official Takuma Kato said.

The health ministry is urging companies to include the antibody test using the coupons in their regular workplace medical examinations.

The ministry believes more men will start taking the test because “the number of companies that will offer the service in the health checkup in autumn or later is slowly growing,” Kato said.

Those who do not receive coupons this fiscal year but who are targeted by the campaign can request them through their local governments.

Rubella is a contagious viral infection that mainly causes a red rash, fever and swollen lymph nodes, though 15 to 30 percent of infected people experience no clear symptoms. Inflammation of the brain is among the rare complications of the disease.

It is particularly important to prevent infections during pregnancy.

The government aims to eliminate the infections by fiscal 2020 and the health ministry is working to further increase awareness by hanging posters and organizing events.