A history of vaccine controversies in Japan might hamper the introduction of COVID-19 vaccinations, experts have said, even as the country battles a severe third wave of infections.
While vaccine hesitancy, and outright opposition, has been growing in developed countries in recent years, public suspicion dates back much further in Japan.
Japan has yet to approve a single vaccine, and vaccinations are not to start before late next month at the earliest.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga this week said that he would be among the first to be vaccinated, in an apparent attempt to bolster lukewarm confidence about COVID-19 vaccines.
Just 60 percent of Japanese respondents in an Ipsos-World Economic Forum survey last month said that they want the vaccine, compared with 80 percent in China, 77 percent in the UK, 75 percent in South Korea and 69 percent in the US.
“The reason why Japanese are hesitant, I think, is because there is a lack of trust in government information,” said Harumi Gomi, professor at the International University of Health and Welfare’s Center for Infectious Diseases.
As early as the 1970s, class action lawsuits were filed against the Japanese government over side effects linked to smallpox and other vaccines.
Two deaths that followed vaccination with the combined diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus shot prompted the government to temporarily withdraw the shot.
It was reintroduced shortly after with new rules, but confidence did not recover.
Then in the late 1980s and early 1990s, cases of aseptic meningitis among children who received locally produced combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccines caused renewed outcry, prompting its withdrawal.
A key turning point was a 1992 court ruling that held the government liable for adverse reactions to several vaccines, even without scientific evidence of a link.
“People thought something [bad] might happen if they got vaccines,” said Tetsuo Nakayama, a project professor at the Kitasato Institute for Life Sciences who focuses on clinical virology. “Consequently, Japan’s vaccine programs did not advance for 15 to 20 years.”
“They need to explain the risks when infected with the virus, the benefits of vaccines and their side effects,” said Gomi, who is treating COVID-19 patients.
Vaccine uptake would depend on clear explanations by healthcare workers and responsible media coverage, Gomi added.
“No vaccine is 100 percent safe. Vaccine programs won’t work if that’s what people want,” she said.
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