One student’s efforts to improve women’s health

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Chika Ezure, a student and company president, works on a project at a facility supporting entrepreneurs in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo.

Chika Ezure was a first-year student in junior high when the government decided in June 2013 to stop actively recommending the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. She was one of many who missed the chance to get the vaccine, which helps prevent cervical cancer, over the following nine years. But the government began in April a catch up program for those who missed it, in part thanks to Ezure, now a 21-year-old university student.

Back in 2013, reports about the vaccine’s adverse side effects were broadcast daily on television. So Ezure saw no reason to get vaccinated, not fully comprehending what the vaccine was for. “I managed to avoid a painful shot,” she recalled thinking at the time.

However, Ezure’s view gradually began to change. It started when she went to New Zealand for a short-term study abroad program in her second year of high school. During a lesson on women’s health, she learned that people ages nine to 26 in New Zealand could receive an HPV vaccination for free.

Then, at the start of Ezure’s final year of high school, a gynecologist visited her school to give a lecture on cervical cancer. This made her want to get vaccinated and protect herself against the cancer. However, vaccinations were only available for girls from the sixth grade to the first year of high school. Her window had already passed.

Ezure later suffered from endometriosis, an extremely painful condition in which tissue similar to uterus lining grows outside the uterine cavity. Ezure then decided to do whatever she could to protect her body. After entering university, she discussed the vaccination with her parents. They agreed to cover the ¥50,000 payment for the three-dose course.

Ezure also asked her friends what they thought about the HPV vaccine. Many of them had avoided getting vaccinated, saying they felt it was “scary,” and others didn’t even know such a vaccine existed. Friends who had thought about getting the vaccine decided against it after learning how expensive it cost, while others were reluctant to talk about their bodies with their parents.

It was then Ezure realized she had been able to get vaccinated “thanks to a chain of lucky coincidences.”

She began to consider ways to help those who wanted the vaccine but were unable to easily get it, which prompted her to join a student organization called “HPV Vaccine For Me.”

The group organized a petition that collected about 30,000 signatures over nine months, and submitted it to then Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Norihisa Tamura in March last year. Later in December, the ministry decided to create a catch-up program which launched this April. Thanks to the program, women born between 1997 and 2005 are now eligible for free HPV vaccinations. “The decision was highly influenced by the strong requests of those behind the petition,” a then senior ministry official said.

Currently, notifications for eligibility varies depending on the municipality. Many of Tokyo’s 23 wards begin notifying those eligible in June or July, but if a person makes a direct request they are able to receive the vaccine earlier in many cases. Local governments are also preparing a reimbursement system for those who provide a receipt or other evidence showing they paid for the vaccine themselves.

Ezure remains passionate about contributing to the improvement of women’s health and established a company last year that makes comfortable women’s underwear.

“I hope as many women as possible become aware of this vaccine program so they can protect their lives and futures,” she said.