Top court ruling expands scope of relief for hepatitis B relapse sufferers

Behind the widespread suffering caused by hepatitis B are past mistakes in the administration of medical care. The Supreme Court can be said to have presented a flexible interpretation to help victims.

A lawsuit against the government for damages was filed by two men who contracted hepatitis B during mass inoculations in their infancy and whose symptoms subsided and then relapsed. In an appeal trial, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling.

As they filed the lawsuit more than 20 years after they had first developed symptoms, a high court dismissed the case, citing the expiration of the 20-year eligibility period for the right to demand compensation. However, the Supreme Court ruled that the countdown for claims began when their symptoms had relapsed, drawing the conclusion that their right to claim damages had not expired.

Hepatitis is a disease that recurs at a certain rate. According to the lawyers, more than 100 patients nationwide who have relapsed are fighting a legal battle with the 20-year eligibility period for claims as a point of contention. It is significant that the top court ruling has widened the scope of relief for victims.

Many people were infected with the hepatitis B virus through the shared use of syringes in mass inoculations from 1948 to 1988. The Supreme Court acknowledged the state’s responsibility, and a relief system was launched in 2012 to provide benefits to victims.

The maximum amount of the benefits is ¥36 million. The payments for patients who first developed symptoms more than 20 years ago, however, were set at up to one-fourth of the maximum. It is believed that the government was concerned about the large amount of compensation due to the high number of victims, and lawyers also prioritized an early solution and accepted the benefit amounts.

The top court ruling this time also attached a supplementary opinion that the court “hopes that the state’s responsibility will be properly fulfilled for a prompt and comprehensive resolution.” Relapsed patients have suffered for a long time. The government should devise measures as soon as possible to help patients who have relapsed.

About 450,000 people are estimated to have been infected with the hepatitis B virus through mass vaccinations. So far, about 85,000 people have asked the government to pay benefits, and decisions have been made to provide benefits to 67,500 victims. However, it can be said that the relief measures are still halfway through.

The hepatitis B virus can remain dormant in the body when people are infected in infancy. The liver is called the “silent organ,” and many people are believed to be unaware of the infection without experiencing any symptoms.

Chronic hepatitis can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer. Many municipalities provide free hepatitis virus tests. It is important to take the tests as soon as possible and link them to treatment.

The central and local governments need to step up efforts for public awareness campaigns to promote the importance of testing. Efforts should also be made to establish effective treatment methods and improve the system to provide medical services.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on April 28, 2021.