This week will see millions of parents across China losing sleep as their children receive their measles shot. The central government announced last week that all children between 8 months and 14 years are to be vaccinated. That brings the number of children now inoculated close to 100 million. To be doubly sure, those who have already received a vaccination will be asked to get the jab again.
The campaign, likely the world’s largest, is the latest effort to eradicate measles. It is also the first campaign to have included the countryside, where previous vaccination coverage has been patchy. Last year China reported 52,000 cases of measles. Although most people recovered from the viral disease, a few suffer serious complications like pneumonia and encephalitis.
Since the Health Ministry announced the vaccination plan, authorities have been flooded with queries. Internet bulletin boards have also been busy with enquiries from parents. Conspiracy theories have also started to circulate via text message. One rumour says the campaign is all about lining the pockets of officials (and their vaccine-vendor accomplices). Another goes further, seeing a conspiracy to reduce population levels.
A more practical complaint is that there is no strong evidence of the vaccination even being necessary. There may have been 52,000 measles cases last year – but that isn’t even a rounding error in population terms.
Experts, too, are sceptical. Wang Yuedan, associate professor of immunology at the Peking University Health Science Centre, told the South China Morning Post that much wider surveying was necessary before knowing if the immunisations were really necessary.
Many parents now vow to keep their children home from school to opt out from the shots. Some say their kids have already received the inoculation shot previously, and do not want to “overdose” them on the vaccine.
So why all the negative talk? “Behind the public’s panic over the rumours is an expression of the citizens’ demands for security and a crisis in confidence,” a columnist writes in the Chongqing Daily. China’s drug industry can be lucrative but is poorly regulated. Domestic manufacturers have been blamed in recent years for a number of deaths linked to shoddy medications at home and abroad.
The China Economic Times newspaper reported in March that vaccines for encephalitis, hepatitis B, rabies and other diseases administered by government-run clinics were linked to the deaths of four children in 2008 and 2009 and illnesses for at least 74 others. The health ministry says its own investigations prove that this was because vaccines had been improperly stored (and that most of the subsequent illnesses were unrelated), many remain unconvinced.
That’s because not many people have much faith in the health ministry’s powers of oversight either. One example: the Shanghai Daily reported last week that hospitals are prescribing far more medicine to patients than necessary (for a fee, naturally). On average, Chinese patients consume 10 times more antibiotics than their counterparts in the US, says Zhong Nanshan, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering.
“The lack of trust toward our food and health products was not formed in one day,” acknowledges the Global Times. “Repairing the damage and building credibility will take a very long time. The public health departments need to take immediate action on all fronts.”
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