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Landmark Japanese HIV Lawsuit Settled Out of Court

March 14, 1996

TOKYO (AP) _ Of Japan’s 4,500 hemophiliacs, almost half contracted the AIDS virus from tainted blood products, a tragedy that victims say was caused by bureaucratic negligence and corporate greed.

In a stunning and rare apology, the government and major drug producers agreed Thursday to pay lifetime support for those AIDS patients, who are now dying at a rate of one every three days.

The victims’ suffering has awakened powerful emotion in a nation known for cool composure.

That anguish was starkly illustrated on nationwide television as drug company executives bowed in shame at a news conference called to discuss the agreement.

``We extend and pledge our heartfelt apologies to those people and their families who were the innocent victims of this insidious disease,″ said Bob Hurley, president of the Japanese subsidiary of Baxter International, the big health products company based near Chicago.

Takehiko Kawano, president of the Japanese drug company Green Cross, added his contrition, but the mother of one of the victims approached the executives and demanded more.

``Lives were at stake here,″ said the woman, who was not identified by name. ``If it was your child, do you think a casual apology like that would be enough?″

With that, Kawano and five other executives silently fell to their knees and slowly brought their foreheads to the floor at her feet.

In a written statement, Baxter said the settlement includes a one-time payment of about 45 million yen, or $429,000, to each claimant, plus monthly payments of $1,428 for life to those with full-blown AIDS.

The government is to bear 44 percent of the cost, and the five companies will split the rest, Baxter said. Baxter’s share will be 13 percent. Further details on the shares of the other companies remained to be worked out.

The agreement to compensate the victims was made in response to a lawsuit filed in 1989 by about 400 infected hemophiliacs.

The suit alleged that five companies, with the backing of the Japanese government, aggressively marketed untreated blood products in Japan for two years after 1983, when it became known that HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, could be transmitted through blood.

Critics say it was known that treating the blood products with heat could kill the virus, but the Japanese Health Ministry delayed ordering this procedure until 1985 to protect Japanese companies from having to buy the costly heat treatment technology.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Shunichi Sugiyama said many of the victims were young when they became infected, and only about half are still alive.

Last October, the Tokyo and Osaka district courts recommended a speedy out-of-court settlement in the plaintiffs’ favor. Court-orchestrated settlements are common in Japan, where legal battles often drag on for years.

Dr. Takeshi Abe, who headed a government AIDS research team in 1983, resigned from the presidency of Teikyo University this year over the scandal, although he has denied any wrongdoing. He is accused of influencing the ministry to avoid expensive recalls of the untreated products and then receiving large donations from the companies for a medical foundation established in his honor.

In February, Japan’s new health minister acknowledged his ministry’s responsibility and set up a team to investigate the companies.

In addition to Baxter and Green Cross, the other companies agreeing to the settlement are Bayer AG of Germany, and Nippon Zoki Pharmaceutical Co. and the Chemo Sero Therapeutic Research Institute, both of Japan.

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