David O’Connor | China file
This article was first published on China File website
China was rocked last month by another public health scandal, after Chinese police announced the discovery of a criminal organization selling millions of improperly stored vaccines in 24 provinces and municipalities. The affected vaccines have a total value of 570 million yuan (U.S.$88 million) and include many of the most common inoculations, ranging from hepatitis to rabies. While the vaccines were made by approved manufacturers, police reported that they were not refrigerated or transported according to regulations, rendering them at best useless and at worst dangerous. In response, the World Health Organization called on China to strengthen regulation of the private sale of vaccines, while stating their belief that these vaccines are very unlikely to cause injury.
The illegal vaccine ring involved hundreds of people and has been active since 2011. It was headed by a former pharmacist surnamed Pang and her daughter, based in Jinan in Shandong province, who acquired the vaccines from both legal and illicit sources and resold them to hospitals. Although police arrested the mother-daughter team last April, they only released this information recently when they issued a public call for vaccine manufacturers to help them track down the buyers and missing products. The delay caused an uproar on Chinese social media as citizens questioned why no action was taken for a year. Riling up public opinion further, Pang had been convicted of
selling vaccines illegally in 2009 and only received a suspended sentence. One Weibo user, echoing popular sentiment, wrote:
Only sentenced to three years, does our country still have the rule of law!!! … Henan College students dig up a bird’s nest and get ten years. A big case like this only gets three years. This is how China is.
An official investigation into the incident was launched on March 28, led by the head of the China Food and Drug Administration. Investigators announced in April that 357 officials have been punished and 202 people detained for involvement in the scandal. The government has also announced an overhaul of the vaccine tracking and distribution system. “Such reform will forbid inoculation organizations from buying vaccines directly from manufacturers, reducing risks among circulation. An information management system regarding vaccine inoculation will be established in order to trace the whole process from production to circulation,” reads the official English announcement.
China does not have a good record when it comes to food and drug safety. In 2007, the former head of the FDA was sentenced to death for accepting bribes from pharmaceutical companies in exchange for approving unsafe drugs. On social media, many are comparing the vaccine scandal to 2008, when a popular milk powder was found to be contaminated with melamine, causing six infants to die and hundreds of thousands to fall ill.
From [2008’s] “poisoned milk powder” to this year’s “fake vaccines,” it all makes people panic. […] How are we supposed to protect our children… I really don’t want to keep looking at the news.
Some Weibo users have responded to the incident sarcastically:
No smog, no poisoned milk, no expired vaccines, no gutter oil, a happy and healthy childhood—this is the good fortune of North Korean children.
Unsurprisingly, many people have expressed concern about the health of their own children, such as this user in a post that was later taken down:
Do you believe everything you hear? Are you a fool? My children aren’t getting their vaccines for a while.
Parents’ fears about vaccine safety are not unfounded. Last September, it was reported that some 360 children in Henan province suffered severe health problems, including two deaths, after being given expired vaccines. In 2013, a spate of infant deaths related to Hepatitis B vaccines sparked fear and outrage in affected communities. In 2010, investigative reporter Wang Keqin published a story in the China Economic Times alleging that unrefrigerated vaccines in Shanxi province had killed four children and caused more than 70 others to fall ill between 2006 and 2008. The editor in chief of the China Economic Times was then fired, allegedly because of this story.
The standard official response to these incidents has been that the health problems are unrelated to vaccines, as was claimed recently after the reported death on March 8 of a boy in Guangdong province, which itself provoked a backlash on social media:
Another child has had their life taken by illegal vaccines… A four-year-old boy in Heyuan, Guangdong province died in kindergarten after getting a vaccine. If this isn’t related to the vaccine scandal, experts will offer fine words to block up people’s eyes and ears, the regulators will keep sleeping, even silencing reports … only fascists would deny this. What is happening to our country?
Now it’s not a vaccine problem, it’s the whole industry time and again revealing shocking chaos, making people uneasy! A few days ago, a child in Guangdong province died after getting a vaccine, despite the government there saying it has no connection to the scandal, but it reflects the irresponsibility of the vaccine market…
In 2008, many Chinese reacted to the melamine incident by turning to Hong Kong products for safety. Now, Hong Kong is again being suggested as a safe zone, with posts on WeChat describing how to schedule vaccination appointments at childcare centers there, even providing lists of locations.
Such posts reflect a growing concern that Chinese people may increasingly lose faith in the safety of vaccines. While the U.S. and Europe have seen the rise of organized anti-vaccination movements, China has been mostly free of the problem. Last year, Foreign Policy published a prescient article noting that unlike skeptical Americans, Chinese people accept the science behind vaccines but are mistrustful of domestic manufacturers. The anti-vaccination movement in the U.S. and Europe, despite centuries of medical evidence supporting vaccination, has been credited with causing thousands of preventable deaths and demonstrates how inaccurate and harmful information can spread even in highly educated societies. China, where the introduction of vaccines has decreased child mortality fivefold over the last 20 years, should be worried about the danger posed by such a movement. Over 90 percent of Chinese children receive a Hepatitis B vaccine on the day they are born. In the country that houses one-third of the world’s Hepatitis B cases, the importance of trust in the system cannot be overstated.