By Mitch Moxley
BEIJING, Apr 6, 2010 (IPS) - Shortly after Liu Yan's four-year-old son, Liu Yi, was bitten by a dog, he did what any responsible parent would do: took his child to the hospital for a vaccination. Two weeks later, after the fourth injection, Liu Yi became violently ill.
The next morning, on Aug. 27, 2008, the boy was taken to First People's Hospital in Yangquan city in central China's Shanxi province, where he was diagnosed with viral meningitis. Liu Yi's condition quickly deteriorated and he died later that afternoon.
Liu Yan blamed the rabies vaccination for his son's death, and according to a searing media report last month, he might not be alone.
"My son was in good health before he got the rabies vaccine," Liu Yan told IPS. "Nobody could clarify why my child got sick."
On Mar. 17, the Beijing-based 'China Economic Times', a business and finance newspaper published by the state-run Development Research Centre, reported on alleged irregularities and safety concerns within Shanxi's immunisation programme.
The expose said that improperly stored vaccines administered by the provincial Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for encephalitis, hepatitis B and rabies between 2006 and 2008 had killed four children and made more than 70 others ill. People were exposed to the faulty vaccinations as late as March 2009.
The six-part series, which took six months to compile and includes interviews with families of 36 victims, has snowballed into a nationwide scandal involving children's health. The 'Times' alleged that the vaccine provider, Beijing-based Huawei Shidai Co, began charging citizens for vaccines that should have been administered for free, and raised the price of other vaccines.
The report also charges that Li Wenyuan, former Shanxi CDC director, used more than half of the funds from Huawei's initial deposit to buy a new car for his private use.
The scandal came to light after Chen Taoan, a former CDC information office official, told 'China Economic Times' he had seen vaccines provided by Huawei exposed to high temperatures before they were distributed across the province. In one case, Chen saw boxes of vaccines left in a room with no air conditioning while workers labelled them.
"I was shocked," Chen said in an interview with IPS. "It was so hot. The vaccines should be stored in a freezer. How could they be exposed to high temperatures for so long? It's very dangerous."
Chen said he initially filed a report to the Shanxi Provincial People's Procuratorate in May 2007, which was ignored. He was removed from his post and put on cleaning duties in early 2009.
Provincial authorities have denied that the vaccinations were unsafe.
On the day of the 'China Economic Times' story, state-run Xinhua news agency quoted Li Shukai, the local deputy health director, as saying the allegations were "basically untrue." (The next day, the 'Times' responded with a published announcement on its website stating that the publication "stands by all the facts written in the report.")
On Mar. 22, the provincial government maintained that the vaccines were safe, but admitted that the provincial CDC and Huawei had violated rules.
The local government launched an investigation into the scandal, which was assisted by a group sent by the Ministry of Health and experts from other provinces. A week later, the Chinese Medical Association sent a team of eight experts to Shanxi, Xinhua reported. Meanwhile, the provincial food and drug administration launched an inspection campaign on vaccine quality and safety in late March.
Ju Xianhua, deputy secretary general of the Shanxi government, said at a press conference that vaccines in the province were being "strictly monitored and their quality is guaranteed." He said the province had sent experts to examine the cases of all 15 children named in the news reports.
In response to the Shanxi scandal, the Ministry of Health issued notices defending the quality and safety of vaccines manufactured in China. The country's top health authority encouraged the public to follow the vaccination programme, which it said was the best way to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.
China has been hit by several vaccination scandals in recent weeks. Disease control and prevention authorities in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province, found after an initial investigation that some children became ill or paralysed after receiving an H1N1 flu vaccine. (Officials said a further investigation was needed for a thorough assessment).
According to the Hong Kong-based 'Mingpao' magazine, one of Jiangsu province's top vaccine producers, Jiangsu Yanshen Biological Stock Co Ltd, had produced contaminated vaccines that over the years had sickened over one million people. The company has halted production and seven top executives have been arrested on charges of producing and selling fake vaccines.
In Shanxi, parents of six alleged victims travelled to Taiyuan, the provincial capital, to demand an explanation from the local health bureau, the 'Guangzhou Daily' reported. After a meeting with officials was denied, some parents engaged in a brief confrontation with bureau staffers.
"I have not received any compensation," said Jia Haibo of Changzhi city, whose three-year-old daughter, Jia Xiaonu, fell ill with a mysterious case of necrotising fasciitis after receiving a vaccine for mumps in July 2008. She recovered, but still struggles to use her left hand. "I can do nothing but wait for the final results," the father said.
According to media reports, Chen and parents of some of the affected children received threatening text messages in the days following the 'China Economic Times' report. Some messages offered bribes of 50,000 to 100,000 renminbi (7,324 to 14,648 U.S. dollars) for keeping quiet.
Chen confirmed that he has received threats, but does not fear for his safety. "I'm happy more and more people are starting to pay attention to this problem." (END)