Japan premier apologizes to hepatitis C patients over tainted blood

Japan's prime minister apologized Tuesday to four people who contracted hepatitis C from tainted blood products and promised to enact legislation to compensate them.

Yasuo Fukuda met the hepatitis sufferers at his office. They are among hundreds seeking damages from the government and pharmaceutical companies in the blood products scandal. Part of the meeting was broadcast on television.

"I apologize for the years of indescribable suffering you have gone through," said the prime minister, who has struggled to regain public support following a series of scandals. "The only way to respond to your wishes is to enact legislation, and I'll do my utmost to achieve that goal."
The plaintiffs say they contracted hepatitis C, mainly in the 1980s, from defective blood-clotting agents that the government and the pharmaceutical companies kept using despite knowledge of their potential contamination.

Hepatitis C is a chronic, blood-borne virus that can cause liver ailments, including cancer, cirrhosis and liver failure. It is treatable, but those who have the disease are often unaware of their infection.

About 200 patients have filed lawsuits in five courts across Japan, demanding compensation from the government and drug makers Nihon Pharmaceutical Co., Mitsubishi Pharma Corp. — now called Mitsubishi Tanabe Pharma — and its subsidiary Benesis Corp.

Fukuda's ruling bloc proposed a plan Sunday to submit legislation early next month to provide aid to about 1,000 hepatitis C patients. The patients have already rejected a government compensation plan according to a court-proposed settlement.

Though some 10,000 people may have been infected by hepatitis C through the tainted products, the aid is expected to cover only the lawsuit participants.

Michiko Yamaguchi, a patient representing the plaintiffs, welcomed Fukuda's apology and expressed hope for "a complete settlement."

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