WHO keen to see free flu shots for kids

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 March, 2008, 12:00am

Health experts want vaccinations to cover streptococcus pneumonia

The World Health Organisation yesterday welcomed Hong Kong's move towards vaccinating all children under the age of 12 against influenza, which local experts said would reduce complications.

But child-health experts said it should also consider providing free vaccination for all children, elderly people and other high-risk groups against flu and streptococcus pneumonia - the main cause of influenza-related deaths.

'The WHO definitely believes that the best defence against influenza is vaccination, and the most vulnerable groups are the young and the old,' spokesman Gregory Hartl said.

He was commenting after Secretary for Food and Health York Chow Yat-ngok said the government was studying the feasibility of vaccinating 1 million children aged under 12, which could cost the city HK$100 million a year.

Mr Hartl said Ontario in Canada had a universal vaccination policy on influenza.

Also welcoming the measure, medical sector legislator Kwok Ka-ki said it would be 'very effective' and would reduce the number of children admitted to hospital after contracting influenza.

'There is no method better than vaccination,' he said, adding it would reduce the risk of virus mutation.

The Hong Kong plan follows a recommendation by a US Food and Drug Administration panel that children up to the age of 18 be vaccinated against influenza. This would mean 30 million more children in the US would be immunised.

Hong Kong's existing government immunisation programme calls for vaccination of children aged six to 23 months, elderly people and those with chronic diseases.

Dr Kwok said a flu shot cost HK$100 to HK$150 and it would be acceptable for the government to charge a small amount.

Chinese University professor and head of respiratory medicine David Hui Shu-cheong said the government 'needs to provide some scientific evidence on why they want to immunise older children and its cost-effectiveness'.

The chairman of the Medical Association's advisory committee on communicable diseases, Tse Hung-hing, said the effectiveness of the vaccines depended on whether the WHO could predict the prevalent type of flu virus correctly.

'If the WHO recommends the vaccine correctly, the vaccination will be absolutely effective,' he said, adding the number of confirmed flu cases could be reduced by up to 90 per cent for people aged one to 15.

Even if the vaccine was mismatched with the prevalent virus, there would still be partial protection.

David Chan Moon-cheung, consultant to the Hong Kong Child Vaccine Concern Group, said there was an urgent need for flu and streptococcus pneumonia vaccination.

'Hong Kong should follow the recommendations given by the World Health Organisation and American Centres for Disease Control,' Dr Chan said.

The WHO recommended last year that all newborns should receive the streptococcus pneumonia vaccine, which is provided free in the US, Britain, Canada and Australia.

Dr Chan said both vaccines should be given to young children aged six months to 12 years old, adults who take care of them, the elderly, and also those whose immune systems or spleens were weak.

Another paediatrics doctor, Alfred Tam Yat-cheung, said nearly 20 per cent of children aged from two to six years are streptococcus pneumonia carriers, citing a medical journal published in 2000.

To guard against streptococcus pneumonia, children under the age of two have to take two to four doses of a vaccine that costs more than HK$500 per dose. Children aged above five and adults only need to take one dose of a vaccine that costs less than HK$200.