Hepatitis scandal sparks anger at Japan government

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TOKYO, Oct 26 (Reuters) Eriko Fukuda was an active young woman of 20 when she was told she had contracted potentially deadly hepatitis C after being treated with a tainted blood product as an infant and needed costly and grueling treatment.

This week, she was outraged when Japanese health ministry officials admitted to possessing data that would have helped them to identify and warn hundreds of similarly afflicted patients years ago, before their illnesses worsened.

''It is unforgivable that people who did no wrong were forced into bitter lives, robbed of their dreams, their families, their health and their life, and left in tears,'' wrote the 26-year-old Fukuda -- one of more than 170 plaintiffs who have sued the Japanese government and drug makers -- on her blog.

The affair, which coincides with a separate scandal at the defence ministry, has embarrassed Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda's month-old government, forcing him to apologise and pledge remedies after what critics say were decades of official neglect.

''Although the (health) ministry had a list of people suspected of having contracted hepatitis from blood products, they ignored the list and did not do anything about it for many years,'' the prime minister said in his weekly email magazine.

''Hearing the bitter voices of these people, I feel desperately sorry ... and I am fully aware of my own responsibility,'' he added.

The scandal has given fresh ammunition to resurgent opposition parties, which control parliament's upper house and are pushing for an early election for the powerful lower chamber.

''The only way to root out the structural causes of such scandals is to have a change in government,'' opposition Democratic Party lawmaker Tetsuro Fukuyama, who has been grilling the government over the issue, told Reuters in an interview.

Critics say the affair, which has dominated the media this week, is a disturbing rerun of coverups that led to nearly 2,000 haemophiliacs being exposed to the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in the early 1980s.

About 10,000 people have been estimated to have Contracted hepatitis C from tainted coagulants.

LESSONS UNLEARNED ''Despite the fact that health officials are supposed to protect people's lives, they have more respect for companies,'' Takashi Kato, a lawyer for a group of 13 plaintiffs whose case is now before the Osaka High Court, told Reuters.

''That is the biggest problem, and it was the same in the case of those infected with HIV from tainted blood products.'' Most of the cases have been linked to the coagulant fibrinogen, used to stop haemorrhaging during childbirth or surgery and sold in Japan even after being withdrawn in the United States in 1977.

The government issued warnings after eight women who had received fibrinogen were found to have contracted hepatitis C in 1988, and use of the product was virtually banned in 1998.

In 2002, media said, a drug maker gave the health ministry a list of 418 patients who had been exposed to the tainted product, but officials took no action to warn individuals.

Only in 2004 did the government publish the names of hospitals that had used the coagulant.

Last week, Health Minister Yoichi Masuzoe said the ministry had no data to identify individual patients. Just days later, he was stunned when officials said they had found documents identifying more than 100 patients by name or initials in a dusty storeroom.

The drug company said it had originally submitted names or initials of nearly 370 people, according to media reports.

''The lesson from the HIV scandal is that the facts have to be made public as soon as possible. Instead, they tried to hide things and avoid responsibility,'' Democratic Party executive Naoto Kan told reporters this week. As health minister in 1996, Kan played a key role in exposing the HIV scandal.

The government now appears keen to settle the lawsuits, currently before several higher courts, and the ruling coalition is scurrying to draft a law to assist hepatitis patients.

But critics say the delay has cost victims their health and in some instances their lives.

''Hepatitis gets worse, becoming chronic and leading to cirrhosis and liver cancer,'' lawyer Kato said.

''By covering things up, the state kept people from getting treatment at the best time.'' REUTERS ARB AS1413

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