Lessons to be learned over swine-flu vaccine

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 03 September, 2010, 12:00am

It is unusual to see the global pharmaceutical industry making windfall profits from a product that few wanted or needed without being criticised and governments not having to explain a waste of billions of taxpayers' money. But this is what happened with the swine-flu vaccine. Supplies rushed out to catch up with global demand are now being destroyed as stockpiles reach their use-by dates. It is ironic to reflect now that only a year or so ago our government faced criticism - understandable at the time - for having to wait in the queue behind other countries for supplies.

Hong Kong spent HK$257 million on emergency supplies of the vaccine, but only about 178,000 people, or 9 per cent of target groups totalling about 2 million, took up the offer of free jabs. A health department survey to find out why, conducted by the University of Hong Kong social sciences research centre, showed people felt the chances of infection were low and those of severe illness even lower. They were also discouraged by reports of complications.

These findings are not surprising. There were reports of recipients suffering serious side-effects. Health officials dismissed any connection with cases overseas of Guillain-Barre syndrome and miscarriages in patients who were vaccinated. But the concerns clearly hit the take-up rate. The timing was also significant. Early reports of swine flu in Mexico and the United States raised fears of a virulent, deadly strain. Governments rushed to protect their populations. The World Health Organisation declared a pandemic. However, it peaked before the vaccine was generally available. Had it been otherwise, the take-up rate would have been much higher. Indeed, the vaccination would have been central to our defences.

Given what the city went through with Sars in 2003, Hong Kong people have shown their resilience. It is natural to be sceptical about new vaccines, although the media and some doctors and health workers have been criticised for it. But there are lessons to be learned if caution is not to become irrational. Health officials are right to plan better communication with the media, health-care workers and the public on the benefits and risks of vaccinations, such as side-effects.