Chinese parents are flocking to Hong Kong to vaccinate their children, fleeing China’s explosive health and safety vaccine scandal this month. However, they find themselves shoved to the back of the line by a newly-implemented policy.
Starting April 1st, Hong Kong’s Maternal and Child Health Centers will only accept 120 new non-resident children each month. Parents of non-resident children — mainly from the mainland — will be forced to book appointments for the time left over, succumbing to higher fees, Reuters reports.
“The government’s policy is to accord priority to local children,” stated Hong Kong’s Assistant Director for Family and Elderly Health Services, Teresa Li.
Mainland parents are seeking refuge from a massive illicit vaccine epidemic — involving a 300-people ring distributing over 2 million spoiled vaccines over the last 5 years to two-thirds of China. The scandal has thrown into question the Chinese health system’s regulatory guidelines in the distribution of non-mandatory, private purchase, “Category 2” vaccines, which include those for diseases like Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B and meningitis.
Back in 2005, the State Council issued rules determining that the government would only strictly regulate necessary Category 1 vaccines, leaving Category 2 vaccines to fall into the chaos of market competition, Caixin reports. To ensure a steady source of income, disease control centers have resorted to raising prices, establishing long-term partnerships with vaccine manufacturers and encouraging hospitals to recommend non-mandatory vaccines to their patients.
This shady system with little government supervision provided a golden opportunity for one Shandong mother and daughter who are at the center of one of China’s largest health and safety scandals in history. It made headlines on March 18, when Shandong authorities issued a public notice of a vaccine sales ring worth over 570 million yuan ($88 million).
The unlicensed business sold over 25 kinds of vaccines without proper refrigeration since 2010. Health officials have raised alarms warning the public that the vaccines could lose their effectiveness, putting people’s lives at risk. State media has since published images of some facilities where these vaccines were stored:
The announcement has caused a public uproar with possibly-related incidents involving faulty vaccine regulation being brought to new light, such as the death of four-year-old boy in Zijin county, Guangdong province following a state-provided vaccination.
Officials admitted flaws in local supervision at a press conference on March 24th. They have also announced the funding of a vaccine program, in which regulators will conduct compulsory inspection and approval of each batch of vaccines before they leave factories.
“The vaccines in the market are stable and controllable in terms of their safety and effectiveness,” Wang Junzhi, member of Expert Committee on Biological Standardization of the World Health Organizaiton (WHO) told Xinhua.
But these statements do not answer the questions citizens are dying to know. How can the public can be assured that the vaccines currently in the system are not illicit? And, what can be done to re-vaccinate and follow-up those who received dud vaccines?
Already doubts are pushing mainland parents abroad to seek vaccinations for their children, mirroring what happened in 2008 when a massive health crisis broke consumer confidence in domestic milk powder, causing middle-class parents to start buying their formula from Hong Kong or from overseas. Eventually, Hong Kong reacted by enforcing limits on the amount of milk powder that non-residents could leave the city with.
By Eugenia Xiao
[Images via Caixin]