Bird flu vaccine linked to 18 teenage suicides in Japan

March 1, 2007 

JAPANESE health authorities are investigating a flu medicine that is also available in Australia after a teenager jumped 11 storeys to his death after taking the drug. It was the 18th juvenile fatality linked to Tamiflu in 17 months.

The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare has asked the Japanese importer of Tamiflu, an anti-viral drug regarded as the most important shield against bird flu in humans, to collect information about the conditions of patients who take the drug.

The 14-year-old boy’s death follows a similar case two weeks ago, when a girl also 14, died after jumping from an apartment building at Gamagori, in central Japan.

It also comes after a warning by the US Food and Drug Administration late last year about the dangers of giving children Tamiflu. The drug is being stockpiled in Australia as the first line of defence against bird flu. In Australia, as in Japan, it is only available by prescription.

The Swiss manufacturer, Roche, says the rate of deaths and psychiatric disturbances among people taking its medication is no higher than for flu sufferers generally. It denies there is evidence of a direct correlation between the drug and the fatalities.

In the latest case the teenager, from Sendai in Japan’s north-east, had been prescribed a five-day course of Tamiflu by his doctor. After taking two tablets on Monday, he woke during the evening and told his mother he was going to the bathroom, but went out the front door instead.

His mother followed him and called out when she saw him climbing a 1.3-metre handrail. Police said he did not respond, throwing himself off to the parking lot below. There was nothing to suggest the death was a suicide.

Hakuo Yanagisawa, the Minister of Health, Labour and Welfare, urged the public to stay calm. “There needs to be clear evidence,” he said.

Drug companies reported that 54 people using Tamiflu died in Japan before November, the ministry said.

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