Cool reaction to upcoming swine flu vaccinations
A cool reaction to the upcoming swine flu vaccination programme has prompted the government to urge high-risk people to set aside worries about side effects and have the jabs.
The call came from Professor Gabriel Leung, undersecretary for food and health, as he announced details of the free inoculation available this month to two million people deemed to be at particular risk of infection.
'I sincerely urge all Hong Kong people, especially those in the high-risk groups, to seriously consider getting vaccinated in order to lower the infection risk,' Leung said.
The World Health Organisation has reported that side effects include swelling, redness or pain at the injection site, fever, headache and a variety of allergic reactions. It said fewer than 10 cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome - a disease in which the body damages its own nerve cells - had been reported. This was in line with normal rates of this illness and there had been no known death directly linked to the vaccination.
Centre for Health Protection controller Dr Thomas Tsang Ho-fai said there would be a major promotion campaign including television and radio commercials, and letters to doctors and kindergartens.
'Of course we are concerned about the vaccine take-up rate. We will do everything we can to promote the programme,' he said.
Secretary for Food and Health Dr York Chow Yat-ngok and other senior health officials are expected to receive the first shots.
The government has ordered three million shots, of which 500,000 will arrive in about two weeks and the rest by January.
From December 21, the five high-risk groups - young children, the elderly, expectant mothers, the chronically ill, health care workers, and pig farm and slaughterhouse workers - will be able get free vaccinations at more than 100 public clinics, with total capacity of 6,000 shots a day. Some 500 medical staff will be mobilised for the scheme, including 300 part-time or temporary staff.
Those who prefer to get the shots from private doctors will need to wait another week, as private clinics and hospitals will start vaccinating from December 28. Private doctors are able to set their own rates. For shots given to the high-risk groups, they can claim a government subsidy of HK$129 - comprising HK$79 for the cost of the vaccine and a HK$50 injection fee.
Cheung Tak-hai, vice-chairman of the Patients' Alliance, said the initial response from chronically ill patients to the vaccination programme had been poor as most were worried about side effects. Cheung, a heart patient, said he would think twice about getting a shot.
Only about a third of public health care workers joined the annual seasonal flu vaccination programme. The Hospital Authority hopes that at least a similar participation rate can be seen in the swine flu programme.
Dr Seamus Siu Yuk-leung, vice-chairman of the Frontline Doctors' Union, said he and many of his colleagues would not get the shots. 'If we have fever after taking the vaccines, we cannot work and it will cause so much stress to other doctors because manpower is so tight.'
A health care professional familiar with the programme said more publicity was needed to inform people.
'Vaccination is a key strategy for Hong Kong to fight against the second wave of swine flu or our health care system may crash if many infected patients flood our hospitals.'
Tim Pang Hung-cheong, spokesman for the Patients Rights Association, said many elderly people would take a 'wait-and-see' attitude. Pang called on the government to reach out to the elderly instead of waiting for them to go to clinics.
As an example, he said doctors at public clinics should arrange vaccinations for their elderly patients during routine medical consultations.
'Public clinics can consider setting up special counters to vaccinate elderly patients waiting for their routine consultations.'
The chairwoman of the Hong Kong Kindergarten Association, Mary Tong Siu-fun, estimated that about 15 per cent of parents, especially older Chinese, would not get their children vaccinated because of the fears of side effects. 'Some would rather ask their children to skip school than having them vaccinated,' she said.
Pig farmers are expected to be the most eager recipients. Chan Kin-yip, chairman of the Pig Raising Development Federation, said his group would mobilise 300-odd members, and their workers and families to take the vaccines. 'Apart from protecting our own health, we want to send a message to the public that people and pigs in our farms are all healthy.'
The five high-risk groups of about two million people and where they can get the jabs:
Medical workers: 150,000 (their own hospital)
Chronic patients and pregnant women: 710,000 (chronic: their own HA clinic; pregnant: DH maternal and child health centres)
Children aged between six months and six years: 380,000 (DH student health service centres)
Elderly aged above 65: 830,000 (homes for the elderly/ DH elderly health centres/ HA clinics)
Pig farm workers and slaughterhouse workers: 1,550 (18 designated HA clinics)
Each of the two million people will be subsidised HK$129 per shot if they go to private doctors. Of the subsidy, HK$79 is the cost of the vaccine and HK$50 is the administrative fee. The government will spend HK$700 million for the whole scheme.
DH = Department of Health
HA = Hospital Authority