© The Asahi Shimbun
Mika Matsufuji, second from right, and other members of the “Zenkoku Shikyukeigan Vaccine Higaisha Renrakukai” hold a news conference to explain possible side effects of a vaccination against cervical cancer in Tokyo on March 25.
The health ministry decided June 14 to withdraw its recommendation for a vaccination to protect girls against cervical cancer after hundreds complained about possible side effects, including long-term pain and numbness.
The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare is not suspending the use of the vaccination, but it has instructed local governments not to promote the use of the medicine while studies are conducted on the matter.
"The decision (not to recommend the vaccination) does not mean that the vaccine itself is problematic from the viewpoint of safety," said Mariko Momoi, vice president of the International University of Health and Welfare, who headed a ministry task force looking into the matter.
"By implementing investigations, we want to offer information that can make the people feel more at ease."
It is rare for the ministry to withdraw a recommendation for a vaccine that is used regularly by local governments and is spelled out in a law.
Girls can still receive the vaccination for free, although medical institutions must now inform them beforehand that the ministry does not recommend it.
The government's subsidy program for vaccination against cervical cancer started in 2010. The vaccination became regularly used in April this year under revisions to the Preventive Vaccination Law.
Those subject to the vaccination range from six-graders of elementary schools to first-year students of senior high schools.
So far, an estimated 3.28 million people have received the vaccination. However, 1,968 cases of possible side effects, including body pain, have been reported.
The ministry's task force discussed 43 of those cases. However, a cause-and-effect relationship between the vaccination and the pain and numbness could not be established, so the task force members called for further studies by the ministry.
On June 14, the task force concluded that the ministry should withdraw its recommendation until it can offer appropriate information about what caused the pain and numbness.
The ministry's investigation is expected to take several months. It will then decide whether to reinstate or continue to withhold its recommendation for the vaccination.
"We welcome the decision not to recommend the vaccination even though it is a small step," said Mika Matsufuji, head of a group of parents who say their children have suffered side effects from the vaccination. "Parents can decide whether their children should receive the vaccination or not."
The risk of cervical cancer increases in women in their 20s or 30s. About 9,000 people contract the disease every year in Japan, and about 2,700 die annually.
The World Health Organization recommends the vaccination, which is used in various countries.