Japan PM says wants to help all hepatitis patients

Sun Dec 23, 2007 12:34am EST

TOKYO Dec 23 (Reuters) - Japan's prime minister said on Sunday his party will draft legislation aimed at helping thousands of hepatitis patients, the latest development in a high-profile scandal that has drawn voter anger.

At least 10,000 people are believed to have contracted hepatitis C from tainted products, most notably fibrinogen, a coagulant used to stop haemorrhaging during surgery or childbirth. The drug was used in Japan even after it was withdrawn from the United States in 1977.

The emotive scandal has been instrumental in further eroding Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda's approval ratings, already suffering from the government's mishandling of a public pensions crisis and a defence procurement scandal.

"Steps will be taken to provide aid to all the hepatitis sufferers," Fukuda told reporters.

On Thursday, hepatitis patients rejected a government compensation proposal.

The prime minister said he hoped to be able to present the bill during the current session of parliament.

A group of patients seeking compensation had sued the government and drug makers, but had rejected a settlement proposal by a regional court earlier this month, saying it would only provide aid to a limited number of sufferers.

The group has been calling on the Japanese government to make a political decision on the matter.

Patients and critics say the hepatitis scandal is a disturbing rerun of a cover-up over the exposure of nearly 2,000 haemophiliacs to the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in the early 1980s.

Hepatitis C can lead to chronic liver infection and cirrhosis. About 1 percent to 5 percent of people with the disease eventually die from long-term infection, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Reporting by Miho Yoshikawa; Editing by David Fogarty)