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Gov't keen on settlement with hepatitis C patients by year-end.

TOKYO, Oct. 24 Kyodo

Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Yoichi Masuzoe expressed Wednesday strong hope of reaching within the year a settlement of damages lawsuits against the state by people who were infected with the hepatitis C virus after being treated with tainted blood products.

It is the first time the Japanese government has mentioned a specific timing for reaching a settlement of the suits, which were filed five years ago, making it likely they will move towards a negotiated settlement.

Asked about Masuzoe's remark, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda indicated that it is desirable to resolve the issue as soon as possible.

''The sooner it is, the better,'' Fukuda told reporters at his office.

Masuzoe said his ministry found Tuesday night new documents containing the names of eight more hepatitis C patients, bringing the total number of patients that can be fully identified to 10.

Speaking at the afternoon session of the House of Representatives Health, Labor and Welfare Committee, Masuzoe said he would like to take steps ''before the year ends'' in response to the Osaka High Court's call for the two sides to reach an amicable settlement.

''The government as a whole would like to reach a proper decision,'' he said.

The high court in September sounded out both sides on reaching a settlement, and the state has told the court it will start talks for a settlement with the plaintiffs.

''We have thrown the ball to the Osaka High Court and conveyed our thoughts to them. We will also take up the issue with Prime Minister Fukuda,'' Masuzoe said in responding to a question from Kazunori Yamanoi, a lower house member from the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan.

Plaintiffs in various lawsuits involving the hepatitis C virus are now hopeful for a positive outcome in their respective court cases as a result of Masuzoe's target for an amicable settlement.

Masuzoe's revelation of new documents on more hepatitis C patients that can be fully identified came after his ministry's announcement on Monday that it has located documents with the names or initials of 118 out of 418 people who have developed hepatitis C through the administration of a tainted blood product. The announcement was a reversal of the ministry's earlier claim that it had no data to confirm any of the patients' identities.

The existence of the 418 patients was reported to the health ministry by the now-defunct Green Cross Corp., which manufactured the blood product fibrinogen, in 2002, but neither informed any of the infected patients, citing a lack of information to confirm their identities.

The revelation on Monday drew strong criticism from plaintiffs in lawsuits mounted against the government and the manufacturers over their hepatitis C infections.

Masuzoe said he intends to bring lawyers and other outside experts into a team that will investigate how the ministry responded to the matter and verify the ministry's responsibility.

Hepatitis C is a liver illness mainly transmitted by blood. Although acute symptoms are relatively mild compared with other types of hepatitis, it tends to become chronic and can develop into cirrhosis and liver cancer.

An estimated 2 million people are infected with hepatitis C across Japan and they were mainly infected through tainted blood products, according to medical experts.

In one of the series of lawsuits on hepatitis C infections, the Osaka District Court ruled in June 2006 that the state and drugmakers were responsible for nine out of 13 people who were infected with the hepatitis C virus after being treated with tainted blood products, and ordered them to pay a total of 256 million yen in damages.
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Publication:Japan Policy & Politics
Date:Oct 27, 2007
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