China vaccine fiasco upsets even state media

March 29, 2016 06:00
People in mainland China have become distrustful of domestically made vaccines following scandals involving fake products. Photo: CNSA

The impact of the latest healthcare scandal in China, this time involving the sale of illegal vaccines, is spreading as officials acknowledge that more than two-thirds of the country's provinces are affected.

Hong Kong, too, is a victim as mainland parents who don't trust vaccines made and distributed in China bring their children here for inoculations. The number of non-local children served so far this year in the city's hospitals is already 27 percent higher than that in the same period in 2015.

While the Hong Kong government insists that there are sufficient vaccines for all local children, the city cannot possibly provide for the medical needs of a country of over a billion people or even of neighboring Guangdong province, whose population is more than 10 times that of Hong Kong.

The Chinese police say that improperly stored or expired vaccines, valued at US$88 million, have been sold in 24 of China's 32 provincial-level regions. More than 130 persons have been detained so far in a widening investigation. The illegal operations have apparently been going on since 2011.

The case has shocked and incensed the Chinese public, heightening suspicion over drugs manufactured and sold in the country.

At a news conference conducted by the Ministry of Public Security, a senior official has revealed that 20,000 unused doses of improperly stored or expired vaccines have been found so far.

Officials said that most of the "dubious vaccines" had already been used, in what may have been an attempt to reassure the public that it is now safe to vaccinate their children.

The Shandong police announced that they had two suspects in custody – a 47-year-old former pharmacist and her daughter, a medical school graduate.

The mother and daughter had bought 25 kinds of vaccines – including those for flu, chicken pox, hepatitis A, meningitis and rabies – from both licensed and unlicensed sources and sold them through vaccination outlets, including disease control and prevention centers.

The vaccination scandal is reminiscent of the milk powder scare a few years back when melamine-tainted milk sickened 300,000 children in China and killed six, causing mainlanders to scour the world for milk powder, beginning with Hong Kong.

Now, again, it is being suggested that Hong Kong is the go-to place for safe vaccinations.

According to the Hong Kong Free Press, a post shared on messaging service WeChat entitled "Protect yourself from poisonous vaccinations: A guide to take your child to Hong Kong for vaccinations" provided information on steps to take to book an appointment at maternal and child care centers in Hong Kong, and also offered a list of locations.

More surprising is the way the official media in the mainland has responded to the vaccine scandal. Only last month, Communist Party general secretary and state president Xi Jinping had personally visited the main media organs – Xinhua news agency, People’s Daily and CCTV – and instructed them to "love the party, protect the party, and closely align themselves with the party leadership in thought, politics and actions".

But some official media organs have been highly critical of the government's handling of the latest scandal and the lack of transparency in the country.

"The authorities have nobody but themselves to blame for the disbelief and mistrust they face," the China Daily opined. "Looking back on what has gone wrong is embarrassing. Acknowledging it may be demeaning. But underplaying or simply looking aside from the root causes have cost the authorities dearly."

Even the normally vociferously pro-government Global Times weighed in with what seemed like a direct rebuttal of Xi's directive for the media to toe the government line.

"In the internet era, publishing accurate information online is the best way to prevent inaccurate and exaggerated messages," Global Times asserted. "In the vaccine scandal, the authorities could have quickly organized media outlets to publish official information."

It concluded: "The role of the media has been misunderstood. The media’s role of supervision doesn’t jeopardize the government’s image, but helps build up their credibility. The latest vaccine scandal has challenged the media’s duty and the media-government relationship. This has to be taken seriously and addressed promptly."

The China Daily and Global Times are official state newspapers. They are pleading with the party to allow them to do their job to report the truth and asking the party to make the truth available. This, they are saying, will actually help, not hinder, the party.

If the party really wants to do a good job of running the country and gaining the support of the people, it should listen to such voices rather than silence them.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.