Just three years after the Japanese government withdrew support for a vaccine against the human papillomavirus (HPV), a new report finds the country’s girls are dramatically more vulnerable to contracting the cancerous disease. Japan’s decision was solely informed by one “sensationalized” report from a non-medical anti-vaccine activist group called Vaccine Victims, which is under investigation by the Japanese government.
Seventy percent of girls were protected against HPV in Japan before 2013. That number dropped dropped to one percent following the government’s 2013 decision to stop recommending the vaccine to doctors and patients, according to a recent study published in the Lancet.
Japanese medical experts, including Dr. Ryo Konno, a professor at Jichi Medical University in Japan, who coauthored the report, are outraged by the government’s inaction and say that without a reinstated national recommendation, there will likely be a spike in “highly preventable cervical and other HPV-related cancers.” An HPV infection, which is transmitted through sex, can cause cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers in women, penile cancer in men, and anal cancer and genital warts for both genders.
This is no longer a medical decision but an emotional-based policy
While the HPV vaccine remains free for girls between the ages of 12 and 16 in the country, the government’s decision not to promote the vaccine’s use has made a significant impact.
Vaccine Victims’ report relies on testimony from fifty girls who say that the HPV vaccine left them with chronic pain. There is no medical evidence supporting these claims. And in 2014, a committee under Japan’s Ministry of Health disproved the report.
“The committee concluded that the girls were suffering from a functional somatic disorder caused by a psychosomatic reaction, so-called conversion disorder,” said Konno. But, he argued, no media outlets or government communication departments have adequately shared this information.
“The Minister of Health still cannot decide to resume the vaccine based on scientific evidence,” Konno said. “This is no longer a medical decision but an emotional-based policy.”
These kind of unscientific, emotionally-charged ideas about HPV vaccinations have also become a point of frustration for doctors in the United States.
Around 80 million people — about one in four — are currently living with HPV in the U.S. But the rate of HPV vaccine coverage in the U.S. remains under 40 percent. Despite the WHO and Center for Disease and Control Prevention’s proof that the vaccine is both safe and extremely effective at curbing cervical center rates, many Americans hold similar doubts and misconceptions as their counterparts in Japan.
In addition, some Americans falsely believe the HPV vaccine as an STD treatment (rather than a vaccine to prevent cancer), and link HPV vaccination to increased sexual activity.
On July 27, a group of around 60 girls and women plan on filing a class action lawsuit against the Japanese government and the two manufacturers of the HPV vaccine, claiming the vaccine left them with severe side effects.
Konno in part blamed the country’s poor media regulation for the dissemination of these unscientific claims, effectively muzzling the government’s efforts to improve reproductive health.
“The absence of any media watchdog in Japan and the relatively lax libel laws mean that newspapers, news programs, social networks, and victim support groups are able to publish unverified stories and videos of girls who claim to suffer from adverse events following HPV vaccination.”