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LEAD: Panel slams doctors' bias, gov't for years of isolating lepers.

TOKYO, March 1 Kyodo

(EDS: ADDING INFO)

Doctors' false conviction that leprosy was incurable, backed by the health ministry's preoccupation with securing a budget for sanitariums, resulted in the prolongation and expansion of Japan quarantining leprosy patients in the postwar years, an inquest panel says in its final report released Tuesday.

In the report, totaling some 1,500 pages, the council on investigations concerning issues related to Hansen's disease also blames educators, the courts and the media for playing a part in backing the state policy initiated in 1907 and lasting until as late as 1996.

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare set up the council to investigate causes as to why the quarantine policy was upheld even after the disease became curable, following a 2001 court ruling that the state erred in maintaining the policy and was ordered to pay compensation to leprosy patients for their suffering.

In the report, the council notes that other countries had repealed their quarantine policy on leprosy patients in the 1960s after it became known that the disease could be healed by ambulatory treatment.

But Japan ''did not abolish its quarantine policy'' as the state followed the line of thinking of Japanese doctors who ''believed that the disease was incurable,'' the report said.

The doctors remained falsely convinced despite international experts' calls to abolish such policy, it said, alluding to the doctors' lack of ability to secure and absorb new knowledge then.

''Japan's absolute quarantine policy from beginning to end did not show any scientific grounds,'' the report says.

According to the report, doctors serving as heads of sanitariums maintained the status quo and so failed to provide accurate information on the disease to Japanese society and fanned public fear and prejudice.

Furthermore, the ministry at the time, then called the Ministry of Health and Welfare, wanted to capitalize on the isolation policy for all leprosy patients as leverage to secure a greater budget under its jurisdiction, citing the need for sanitarium improvement, according to the report.

Until the Leprosy Prevention Law was repealed in 1996, Japan segregated leprosy patients in isolated sanitariums for decades, even after it was learned that the illness, now known in medical terms as Hansen's disease, is not highly contagious.

The Kumamoto District Court in May 2001 issued a landmark ruling finding the government responsible for the suffering of leprosy patients by failing to repeal the leprosy prevention law until 1996. The court also ordered the state to pay compensation for forcing the patients into isolation.

After the ruling, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, only a month after taking office, made a surprise move in deciding the government would not appeal. The Diet later passed a resolution of apology to the patients and a law to provide compensation.

Still, former leprosy patients, typically suffering severe physical deformities, continue to face discrimination in Japanese society, citing a case in 2003 where a hotel in Kumamoto Prefecture refused to accept former patients as guests.

Leprosy patients and their supporters also say that there are many cases in which relatives of leprosy patients refuse to welcome them back or would not even claim the bodies of leprosy patients even after they die.

The council urged the government to address the former leprosy patients' plight by taking several measures such as creating a third-party body to take concrete action on its proposed steps, saying a tragedy of this kind is possible for patients of other infectious diseases if the state fails to do so.

Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Hidehisa Otsuji said the ministry respects the council's proposals and will work on them with other ministries.

The quarantine policy dates back to 1907 and continued on even after World War II, with the creation of a new law on leprosy prevention in 1953. The policy was maintained despite the fact that leprosy had become curable.
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Publication:Japan Policy & Politics
Date:Mar 7, 2005
Words:643
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