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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”

 

Hepatitis C victims sue

EDITORIAL :

The Asahi Shimbun


Slow government action worsens the tragedy.

The tale is tragic and depressing: It is the story of people who contracted a life-threatening illness through medical treatment.

A group of people infected with hepatitis C virus from treatment with virus-tainted blood products-typically during childbirth or through transfusions during surgery-have filed damage suits in Tokyo and Osaka district courts against the central government and three pharmaceuticals companies that distributed the blood products. The plaintiffs, who seek 900 million yen, say their afflictions are the fault of the drug makers, which produced and distributed blood products, knowing they presented a risk of hepatitis infection, and of the government, which certified the products.

Hepatitis C, a primary cause of chronic liver diseases, often does not emerge with symptoms until many years after infection. Many chronically ill patients are unaware they are hepatitis C carriers for 10 or even 20 years, and may not know they are infected until they have developed such other fatal liver conditions as cirrhosis or liver cancer. That is why this form of viral hepatitis is sometimes referred to as a ``silent infection.''

 

The hepatitis C pathogen was slow to be identified, and the resulting liver inflammation was once referred to medically as non-A, non-B hepatitis. It was not until 1988 that the hepatitis C virus was defined. Reliable blood-testing techniques for hepatitis C to ensure safety of blood products and transfusions took even longer to develop.

Much of the hepatitis C infection that has resulted from medical treatment came from fibrinogen, used for more than 20 years as a coagulant at the nation's hospitals. The fibrinogen was made by the now-defunct Green Cross Corp., which was also a defendant in the infamous cases involving HIV infections spread through tainted blood products. The products were used in a variety of procedures by obstetricians, surgeons, and other medical specialists. Mitsubishi Pharma Corp., which took over Green Cross, has estimated that more than 10,000 people got infected with hepatitis C via fibrinogen products since 1980 alone.

In an August report on an internal investigation, the central government absolved itself of blame for the public health care disaster. Indeed, the government ordered the recall of all unheated blood products immediately after widespread infection-presumably via blood products-was reported in 1987. Although heat-treated blood approved by the government as substitutes also caused infections, the government's response was a little different from its response to the HIV infection outbreak, which also involved tainted blood.

But the former Health and Welfare Ministry apparently did not try hard enough to deal with the situation, even though it was easy to assume after the discovery of mass infection that many people had contracted the virus through transfusions or other treatment with the blood products.

 

The plaintiffs say the government is legally responsible for their illness because it approved the blood products for use. This claim should be carefully examined in court.

Two years ago, the former health ministry finally established a project team to seriously address the hepatitis C issue. Since the start of the current fiscal year in April, the ministry has implemented emergency measures that include virus testing as part of the routine in municipal medical checkups. That came too late.

Hepatitis C, if untreated, becomes progressively virulent, eventually becoming serious in eight to 10 years. As it grows in severity, the risk of liver cancer also increases.

Some effective treatments of the disease, however, have emerged in recent years. Immunotherapy using interferon works well, especially when new anti-virus drugs are administered at the same time. A number of hepatitis C patients must have lost opportunities for effective treatment because of the slow government response.

No matter how the trials conclude, policy initiatives must be undertaken quickly to ensure blood tests and expedited effective treatment for all those potentially at risk of hepatitis C. The government should take steps like providing subsidies to periodical medical checkups organized by companies for their employees and increasing funding for research on new treatments.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 22(IHT/Asahi: October 23,2002)

(10/23)