An epidemic of rubella, also known as German measles, has broken out in Japan, with the number of cases exceeding 10,000 and still rising. The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has issued warnings and is urging people to receive a vaccination.
The other topic concerns cervical cancer. In April, a cervical cancer vaccine was added to the ministry’s regular mass vaccination program. But the ministry on June 14 decided to withdraw its recommendation for the vaccine due to concerns about possible side effects.
Different vaccines have different target groups. And their degrees of urgency also vary. In deciding whether specific vaccinations should be carried out, it is necessary to weigh the benefits against the side effects that occur at a certain rate.
But many people still don’t have accurate knowledge and information about vaccines. The government should make greater efforts to better inform the public.
It is advisable for people who have not developed immunity to rubella to receive vaccinations against the disease. Concerning the cervical cancer vaccine, the decision can wait until the results of the health ministry’s research into the possible side effects come out.
There is no radical treatment for rubella, and symptomatic treatment is all that is available for patients. The disease could cause serious symptoms in adults. When women in early stages of pregnancy become infected with the disease, there could be disastrous consequences for the fetus, such as serious heart problems.
To prevent a rubella epidemic, mass vaccinations are vital. Women planning to have children, their families and work colleagues should be vaccinated to develop a community-wide immunity to the disease. The effectiveness of mass vaccinations against rubella has already been proved.
The cervical cancer vaccine, in contrast, is basically a means to protect individuals against the disease. The virus that causes cervical cancer is passed mainly through sexual contact. In the majority of cases, the infection with the virus clears up. If, however, people remain infected for long, they face a higher risk of developing cancer.
Infection with the virus doesn’t necessarily lead to cancer. Nor does preventing infection ensure prevention of cancer. A combination of vaccination and health screening is believed to be highly effective in preventing cervical cancer.
Vaccinations for rubella and cervical cancer have completely different purposes. The rubella vaccine is mainly aimed at preventing an epidemic of the disease for which no effective treatment is available. In contrast, cervical cancer vaccine is primarily intended to protect individuals against the disease, for which there are effective therapies.
Vaccines for infectious diseases that can be effectively treated must meet higher safety standards. Therefore, the health ministry had good reason to withdraw its recommendation for cervical cancer vaccine.
The ministry should reassess the seriousness and frequency of the possible side effects of the vaccine without any assumption. Depending on the results of its assessments, the ministry should then consider all policy options, including the removal of the vaccine from the regular vaccination program.
The history of the health ministry’s vaccination policy has been marked by some blunders and misjudgments. When the so-called MMR vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella led to many cases of side effects, the ministry was slow to change its policy and switch to separate vaccinations for these diseases.
After it was harshly criticized for this misstep, the ministry became weak-kneed about vaccinations. It failed to take effective policy measures to encourage the public to receive important vaccinations against such diseases as measles. As a result, Japan has been internationally criticized as an exporter of measles.
The health ministry should provide more information about the benefits and side effects of vaccinations to help the public make their own decisions. Announcing the results of its research into the side effects of the cervical cancer vaccine would be a good start.
Source: The Asahi Shimbun