Vaccinations taking too long, top doctor says

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 December, 2009, 12:00am

It will take more than six months for all the two million people at high risk to be given swine flu shots if the government vaccination programme proceeds at the current pace.

The largest mass-inoculation programme in Hong Kong, in preparation for a winter flu peak next month, is proving a tough test for the health authorities.

Health care workers and groups of elderly people have complained that the poor design and red tape surrounding the programme have both deterred them from getting the vaccinations.

The Centre for Health Protection said yesterday that 15,467 people were vaccinated in the first three days of the programme, which was launched on Monday. The number increased from 1,500 on Monday to about 8,000 yesterday.

Centre controller Dr Thomas Tsang Ho-fai said: 'Although the number of people who came for shots increased, we still have a long way to go.'

Those eligible for free shots are children aged six months to six years, health workers, the elderly and chronically ill, pregnant women, and pig farmers and slaughterhouse workers. A total of 917 private doctors will start providing private vaccination services on Monday, a move expected to lead to more people getting the shots.

But University of Hong Kong microbiologist Dr Ho Pak-leung said that even if the number of people getting the shots increased to 10,000 a day, it would take 200 days to vaccinate all two million.

'If Hong Kong has to inoculate two million people in the coming month, more than 60,000 people need to take the shots every day. The current speed is lagging far behind the target. Part of the problem is that the programme is not user-friendly at all,' he said.

Ho, president of the Public Doctors' Association, said he had received complaints from private and public health workers. Some hospital staff complained that the procedures to get flu shots were too complicated. They needed to download the forms and report to department heads.

Opening hours of staff clinics were not flexible enough to fit in with many health care workers' schedules. Ho said the authority should consider distributing vaccines to individual departments for group inoculations of staff.

Some private doctors want to vaccinate themselves and their family members but cannot get the supplies unless they join the government scheme to help vaccinate the high-risk groups.

'Alternatively, they can get a free shot from government clinics, but most private doctors are reluctant to line up at the public clinics. Obviously, health officials have lost touch with the reality,' Ho said.

To increase coverage, Ho suggested vaccinating patients at public hospitals before they were discharged, and sending inoculation teams to schools.

Private doctor Paul Shea Tat-ming said the government should open up supplies of the swine flu vaccines to the market. He said many doctors, including himself, had not joined the vaccination scheme because there was too much administrative work.

For children aged between six months and less than six years, parents have to make appointments at one of the Health Department's 15 student health service centres. Telephone bookings are not allowed. Although walk-in appointments are available, parents fear there is a risk that the quota will be used up when they get to clinics.

Tim Pang Hung-cheong, spokesman for the Patients' Rights Association, said the government should reach out to the community instead of waiting for people to line up at its clinics. The group is organising a mass inoculation programme through a clinic for several hundred elderly people.

'The Department of Health should send nurses to community groups to inoculate elderly people in a group - it will save much time and trouble,' Pang said.

A 30-year-old patient with swine flu and no underlying diseases died in Queen Mary Hospital yesterday, the 50th such victim in Hong Kong.

The woman attended the hospital's accident and emergency department on Saturday with fever and a cough. She was admitted to the isolation ward and prescribed Tamiflu and antibiotics on the same day. Her condition deteriorated afterwards.

Shots in the arm

Proposals to increase coverage of swine flu vaccination programme:

Send inoculation team to schools and centres for elderly, and groups

Vaccinate patients before they are discharged from hospitals

Make appointments at student health services clinics more user-friendly for parents

Individual departments at public hospitals can inoculate their health care workers, instead of asking them to get jabs at staff clinics

Allow private doctors to get the vaccines so they can inoculate themselves and their families