The United Struggle for Uniform Relief of All Drug-induced Hepatitis C Victims Changes the Government Policy
The lawsuits, filed against the government by the patients who had been infected with hepatitis C by tainted blood products and pharmaceutical companies, reached a settlement for the first time in Osaka and Fukuoka High Courts on February 4th, 2008. The new Relief Law for Drug-Induced Hepatitis Patients was established on January 11th this year. The campaign waged by the plaintiffs, lawyers team and their supporters changed the government’s stance.
On February 4th, over 200 supporters of the lawsuit over drug-induced hepatitis C gathered in front of the Fukuoka High Court.
Yamaguchi Michiko (51), the representative of the national plaintiffs’ groups commented, “Thanks to you, we have been able to continue our struggle for the last five years. We have really been supported by you all.”
One of the plaintiffs of the Kyushu lawsuit, Ms. Fukuda Eriko (27) said, “For us, the existence of the supporters was so significant. Every time they came to the court to support us. Without their backup, we couldn’t have continued our struggle.”
At the press conference, which was held after the settlement was agreed, smile came over the faces of some plaintiffs, whose eyes also filled with tears.
Lost lives and time, however, will never come back. Some victims have died, saying, “I want to get my health back.”
The only treatment available to remove the hepatitis virus is the interferon therapy, but it has strong side effects. The therapy also takes a long time-from six months to a year. And there is no assurance that virus will be vanished completely even after the therapy has ended.
Ms. Yamaguchi also suffered such side effects as fever and loss of hair, and had to leave her job as a primary schoolteacher, her lifework.
Ms. Fukuda became aware of her infection with hepatitis C when she was 20 years old. Since than, she has struggled with her disease. She experienced various symptoms such as a strong itchiness that made her scratch all over her body, fever, hair loss, thirst and lost strength.
“The treatment was agonizing and it seemed like the time just passed away meaninglessly. I wondered, ‘Why am I wasting my youthful days like this, while others in their twenties are enjoying their lives?”
“Hepatitis destroyed our lives” — this is the common feeling of the plaintiffs.
“Coagulants” spreads the hepatitis cases throughout Japan
The tainted coagulants, including Fibrinogen and Christmassin that were commonly used from 1969 to 1994 during childbirths or surgeries led to the breakout of the hepatitis cases throughout Japan.
Taking the responsibility as a medical organization, the Japanese Federation of Democratic Medical Institutions (MIN-IREN) surveyed the patients’ charts and surgery records of its affiliated medical institutions to check if these blood products had been used. As a result, the hospitals that had the record of using such blood products disclosed the facts and called on patients to have an examination through the information on the bulletin boards in waiting rooms or hospitals’ newspapers. MIN-IREN also joined the boycott campaign against former Midori Juji (currently Tanabe Mitsubishi Pharma) and Nihon Pharmaceutical, the defendant companies.
Mr. Saruwatari Keichiro (45), a pharmacist at Komenoyama Hospital in Fukuoka prefecture has supported the lawsuits.
In 2002, he participated in the call counseling held at a law office. Phone calls didn’t stop from 9am to 4pm. Among them, he cannot forget a call from a victim who said, “I was forced to resign my job as a cook when my infection with hepatitis C was known to others.” Hepatitis C virus has a low infectivity and is transmitted only via blood. He was surprised at the strong biased among public.
While supporting the lawsuits, he had a conflict feeling. “As a pharmacist, I felt guilty being on the side of the perpetrator.” There was a record indicating that Fibrinogen had been delivered in Komenoyama hospital as well. Though an investigation showed no evidence of the products administered to patients, he could not help but think he was a perpetrator.
Conviction that hepatitis cases were drug-induced
By participating in study meetings and court hearings, Mr. Saruwatari became convinced that the pharmaceutical companies and the government were responsible for the outbreak of the hepatitis C. He learned that including those with hepatitis B, many of the patients were infected with hepatitis due to the inadequate medical practices such as sharing of syringes and needles at the time of vaccination. The number of the patients infected with hepatitis B and C is now estimated at 3.5million.
According to Mr. Saruwatari, “Many of the elderly patients in Komenoyama Hospital are infected with hepatitis C.” Hepatitis C was a familiar disease and he never thought that its patients had to be saved by government measures.
Mr. Saruwatari also learned that the government authorized these blood products despite the fact that their effectiveness had not been sufficiently proven. They were produced from the dangerous mixture of blood of thousands to tens of thousands of people. Moreover, the pharmaceutical companies manufactured the blood products before the technique of killing virus was established, and they were aware of the risk of infection.
Mr. Saruwatari found every opportunity to appeal for the relief and support for the victims within MIN-IREN and held many study meetings where the plaintiffs spoke.
Furthermore he appeared in the local media. Gradually, medical institutions other than MIN-IREN started to inform him of the fact that they, too, had used the tainted blood products.
“Don’t give up!”
However, most of the rulings rendered by the district courts across Japan limited the scope of relief to the plaintiffs according to the dosing period or type of blood products used. The outline of the proposed settlement by the Osaka High Court of December 13th, 2007, also limited the plaintiffs to be relieved by the dosing period. The plaintiffs pressed the Prime Minister to make a political settlement for a uniform relieve of all patients, but they received a same proposal which would draw a line between the patients based on the dosing periods.
“It was very hard to think how many more years would be necessary to win the suits at the Supreme Court”, said Ms. Yamaguchi.
Despite such a hard situation, the plaintiffs’ group was united in rejecting selective relieve measures among victims and continued to fight. From the beginning, the plaintiffs aimed at an across-the-board relief for all of 3.5 million victims. They continued to insist, “accepting the selective relief through the lawsuits can never lead to the uniform relief of all hepatitis patients.”
The plaintiffs’ unyielding stance to demand the across-the-board relief moved the public opinion. Ms. Fukuda came to Tokyo many times and appealed on the street for the uniform relief of all victims.
She said, “The people’s response got better day by day.” She was encouraged by the people who said, “Justice is on your side. Don’t give up!”
Marking a new step forward to provide permanent measures
Mr. Kobayashi Kunitaka (35), a plaintiff of the Kyushu lawsuit says, “Even if the lawsuit was settled, our health cannot be retrieved.
The settlement between the pharmaceutical companies is yet to be reached. The responsibilities of the state and the pharmaceutical companies remain unclear over such questions as the list of the infected patients compiled by the pharmaceutical companies long been “left unattended” in the Welfare Ministry.
Moreover, the new relief law will provide relief only to those who can be confirmed as having a drug-induced hepatitis. Those patients who cannot prove the administration of blood products will not be relieved. But hospitals are obligated to keep the charts only for five years. Mr. Kido Yoshiharu (70), General Secretary of the Kyushu Hepatitis Victims Association says, “Already most of the patients’ medicine records have been lost.”
Even the pharmaceutical companies estimate the number of infected people by their products at 10 thousand. But the government considers that only 1000 people are to be relieved by the new law.
The government and pharmaceutical corporations have ignored the outbreak of drug-induced hepatitis for a long time. Even when a group infection of hepatitis C by fibrinogen happened in 1988, the Health and Welfare Ministry did not order the companies to recall the blood products. On the other hand, the relief law requires victims to prove that they were administered with the blood product. Another problem is that the under the law, victims can receive only lump sum payments. It doesn’t ensure the coverage of cost of medical care for hepatitis permanently.
The government should also be held responsible for using same needles and syringes for many people at the time of vaccination and for spreading hepatitis as a national disease. Mr. Kido says, “The interferon therapy costs 80 thousand yen a month. We are not demanding lump sum payments. We need assistance for our monthly medical payments.”
Around in the end of February, it was newly discovered that the pharmaceutical companies and the Welfare Ministry had neglected to review the list of 3700 infected patients. Ms. Shiroto Ryoko (25), a pharmacist at Misaki Hospital and one of the supporters of the lawsuit says, “It is not the end. We still have a lot to do as medical workers.”
A new step has been marked to achieve a permanent measure for all the hepatitis victims.