A turbulent story haunts the deployment of a vaccine against the virus in Japan

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Tokyo (AFP)

A history of vaccine controversies in Japan could cast a long shadow over the coronavirus vaccine rollout, experts warn, even as the country battles a third wave of infections.

While reluctance to vaccination and outright opposition has increased in developed countries in recent years, public suspicion can be traced back much further to Japan.

Even though millions of people in the UK and US are vaccinated against Covid-19, Japan has yet to approve a single vaccine, and vaccinations will not start until late February at the earliest.

This week, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said he would be among the first to be vaccinated, in an apparent attempt to build lukewarm confidence about the coup.

Barely 60% of Japanese people polled in a December Ipsos-World Economic Forum survey said they wanted the vaccine, compared to 80% in China, 77% in the UK, 75% in South Korea and 69% in the United States. United.

The figure was still significantly higher than the 40% recorded in France.

Another poll, carried out by Japanese broadcaster NHK, showed that only half of respondents wanted the vaccine, and 36% opposed it.

Mistrust in Japan dates back decades, with experts pointing to a vicious cycle of lawsuits for suspected adverse events, media misinformation and government overreaction.

“The reason the Japanese are reluctant, I think, is because there is a lack of confidence in government information,” Harumi Gomi, professor at the University’s Center for Infectious Diseases, told AFP. international health and well-being.

– Loss of trustworthy –

As early as the 1970s, class actions were filed against the Japanese government for side effects related to smallpox and other vaccines.

And two deaths that followed vaccination with combined diphtheria, whooping cough and the tetanus vaccine prompted the government to temporarily withdraw the vaccine.

It was reintroduced soon after with new rules but confidence did not recover.

Then, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, cases of aseptic meningitis in children given locally produced combination measles, mumps and rubella vaccines sparked a further uproar, prompting the vaccine to be withdrawn. combined.

A turning point was a 1992 court ruling that held the government responsible for adverse reactions to several vaccines, including side effects – even without scientific evidence of a link.

“Following the lawsuits, I think the government must have thought that they would be prosecuted if they actively introduced vaccines and there was a problem,” said Tetsuo Nakayama, a project professor at the Kitasato Institute for Science. of life which focuses on clinical virology.

“People thought that something (negative) could happen if they got vaccinated,” he added.

“As a result, Japan’s immunization programs have not advanced for 15 to 20 years. ”

There has been some groundwork on the part of doctors to build trust, with some success, notably with the Hib vaccine, given to young children to prevent infection that could otherwise lead to meningitis.

“Hib vaccines became available in 2008 thanks to the efforts of pediatricians,” Nakayama said, adding that Japan’s vaccination program “then started to change course.”

But there was another setback soon after, with massive media attention to the side effects allegedly linked to the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine.

Despite scientific doubt about the links, the outcry prompted the government to remove the vaccine from its list of actively recommended vaccines.

– “Adequate risk communication” –

Subsequent investigations found no cause for concern and the HPV vaccine is widely administered elsewhere.

But in Japan, adoption has fallen from 70% to less than 1%, according to an article in the Lancet medical journal.

“It’s a very disappointing situation for me as a specialist,” said Gomi.

For now, Japan is weeks, if not months, away from any large-scale deployment of a coronavirus vaccine, which will be provided free of charge.

He got enough doses for the 127 million residents under deals with Moderna, AstraZeneca and Pfizer, which sought approval for his coup in December.

A decision on this is unlikely until February, and Nakayama said the government should work to build confidence before then through “good risk communication with the public.”

“They have to explain the risks when they are infected with the virus, the benefits of vaccines and their side effects,” he said.

Gomi, who treats patients infected with the virus, said adoption of the vaccine would depend on clear explanations from health workers and responsible media coverage.

“No vaccine is 100% safe. Immunization programs won’t work if that’s what people want, ”she said.

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