Health benefits of free shots outweigh the cost

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 April, 2008, 12:00am

The experience of bird flu, Sars and the current flu season should have been enough to convince health authorities of the need to expand the number of free vaccines available to our children. No such lesson has been learned, though, and Hong Kong lags far behind other developed societies in what vaccinations are given automatically. This is despite the benefits of protecting the community against diseases and influenzas being well documented. Such protection is expensive, but the cost is well worth it and affordable to Hong Kong.

The Department of Health currently provides nine free vaccines, covering hepatitis B, diphtheria, tetanus, polio, measles, mumps, tuberculosis, whooping cough and rubella. As impressive as the list is, it has been increased by only one over the past 18 years. In that time, health authorities in the US have added nine new vaccines, taking the total offered to American children to 20 - a situation not dissimilar to what has happened elsewhere.

To suggest that Hong Kong should follow suit is not a matter of keeping up with the Joneses; rather, it is to put in place a sound health insurance policy at a time when influenzas in particular are posing greater threats. The recent scare over flu is a case in point. Had every child been given a flu shot, we might have been spared the panic that gripped the community last month, when primary classes had to be suspended to allay anxieties over an outbreak.

Authorities would do well to review the childhood immunisation programme. Respiratory diseases are of particular concern every flu season. Adding new vaccines to protect against such infections as flu and pneumococcal disease should be considered. The cost is not small - for these two shots experts have estimated the government would initially need to put up HK$82 million to ensure that the 410,000 children aged eight and under were covered.

Such a price seems hefty. But as budgets of recent years have shown, it is easily affordable. Science has also clearly shown the value of such vaccinations. After the implementation in Taiwan of an immunisation programme to tackle hepatitis B, for example, data showed an effectiveness rate of about 80 per cent.

There have been sufficient warnings of the need to keep the community as well protected from infections and diseases as is feasible. To ignore the signs could have a dramatically higher cost to society than the vaccines themselves.