Inoculations drop after vaccine scare
Updated: 2014-01-10 00:25
By Shan Juan (China Daily)
More parents delay immunization; doctors say trend puts babies at risk
While medical investigators have ruled out any link between the domestically produced hepatitis B vaccine and the deaths of infants who received shots of the vaccine, fewer participants seem to be showing up for free immunizations under national programs.
Since November, about 17 babies died after receiving the hepatitis B inoculation, a routine treatment for newborns.
Early this month, health and drug authorities issued results from parallel investigations: the babies' deaths were not related to the vaccine.
However, the latest data from the National Health and Family Planning Commission show that the hepatitis B vaccination rate had decreased by 30 percent in December compared with the same period in 2012.
Researchers targeted 10 provinces, including areas where deaths of infants had occurred.
Besides hepatitis B, other vaccinations under the national immunization program saw 15 percent fewer recipients overall, data showed.
"The trend might last for a while, and it poses a danger to newborns' health from infections," said Jia Jidong, who leads the Liver Research Center at Beijing Friendship Hospital.
Immunizations for babies help them stave off various infections, including hepatitis B, which strikes the liver.
It is important to inoculate a newborn within 24 hours of birth to achieve the intended preventative outcome, Jia said.
"That's in line with recommendations by the World Health Organization, as well," he said.
In China's hepatitis B vaccination schedule, a newborn receives three shots — one at birth, another a month later and a third at six months. The second and third shots are usually given at community-level healthcare centers.
Tian Yali, head of the healthcare department of Sanlitun Health Service Center, which handles children's inoculations and physical checkups, said parents have asked her about the safety of the hepatitis B vaccine since news of the deaths were made public.
Some parents with doubts decided to delay the inoculation.
With Spring Festival approaching, many children have already left the capital for the holiday, so the inoculation rate is a bit lower than usual, Tian said.
Liu Fengling, head nurse of obstetrics and gynecology of Xuanwu Hospital in Beijing, said she hasn't seen a drop in inoculations in her department.
"Almost all the babies get the inoculations in time, unless their health conditions don't fit," she said.
WHO lists hepatitis B as a potentially life-threatening liver infection. The virus can lead to chronic liver disease and chronic infection, and it increases the risk of death from cirrhosis of the liver and cancer. The vaccination is the best way to prevent infection, experts say.
Generally speaking, the vaccine is safe and effective, said Bernhard Schwartlander, the WHO representative in China.
The immunization program in China helped reduce the prevalence of hepatitis B below 1 percent among children under 5 years old, down from more than 9 percent before the introduction of the program in 2002.
Newborns then began receiving free shots.
Despite reported side effects, "the health gains of the vaccination program are enormous, and all the efforts should be directed toward the continuation of the program while ensuring the safety of the vaccines," Schwartlander said.
Apart from mild adverse reactions such as soreness at the injection site or fever, severe problems are extremely rare and are believed to occur only about once in 1.1 million doses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States.
Wang Qingyun contributed to this story.