Japan's halt of regular HPV vaccine to cause thousands of cancer deaths: study

TOKYO (Reuters) - A decision by Japan to stop recommending adolescent girls receive a HPV vaccination will likely result in almost 11,000 deaths from cervical cancer if it is not reversed, according to a study in a prestigious medical journal.

The HPV vaccine has been a political lightening rod in Japan, where claims of side effects prompted the government to halt active recommendation of the shots in June 2013.

A study published in The Lancet Public Health on Monday said that policy would lead to more than 24,600 cervical cancer cases that could have been prevented.

Using Japanese population and medical data and forecasted cervical cancer incidence, the study found that, if nothing changes, there would be 10,800 preventable deaths from cervical cancer over the next 50 years.

“If the government were to resume promoting the HPV vaccine in Japan, our study shows that we could avoid most of this loss of life,” said study co-author Sharon Hanley, a professor at Hokkaido University in northern Japan.

The Japanese government could not immediately be reached for comment on the Lancet report. Kei Tamura, deputy director of the Health Ministry’s immunization office, said in an interview in December that “there is a sort of inner conflict in that we are not aggressively, proactively recommending it, but I do think it’s better to take it.”

HPV, which stands for the human papilloma virus, causes genital warts in both sexes and cervical cancer in women. Each year, about 10,000 Japanese women are newly diagnosed with the cancer while 3,000 die from it.

Uptake was swift when the vaccine was introduced in Japan in 2009, with immunization reaching about 70% in adolescent girls.

However, the vaccination rate has since slid to below 1% after the health ministry suspended its active recommendation after reports of side effects including muscle pain, sleep disorders, and light and sound sensitivity.

Females aged 12-16 can still get free HPV vaccines under Japan’s national healthcare system if they ask for it. Everyone else must pay out of pocket.

In November, ruling party legislator Junko Mihara, a cervical cancer survivor, said lawmakers would hold talks on the vaccine this summer. Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike and eight other regional leaders signed a letter supporting HPV vaccination.

The Health Ministry said in December it was working on improving leaflets on the vaccine, but had no time table for a return to regular immunization.

Reporting by Rocky Swift; editing by Jane Wardell