Chickenpox threat in Hong Kong as vaccine runs out
Suppliers blame a sudden rise in demand; doctor says 1 in 3 children he inoculates are mainlanders afraid about fake drugs back home
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Children may be left vulnerable to chickenpox infection as the city runs short of vaccine. One supplier blamed the shortage on a sudden increase in demand and said it had been out of stock since January.
Doctors Union president Dr Henry Yeung Chiu-fat said he had seen a surge in mainland demand for injections. It follows the death of a five-year-old boy in a fake vaccine scandal in Guangxi province two years ago.
Secretary for the Food and Health Bureau Dr Ko Wing-man confirmed the vaccine shortage yesterday. "Some private doctors have found it difficult to purchase more. The government has already taken action to contact the supplier. They have given us their promise to supply more as soon as possible."
The government decided last year to provide chickenpox vaccines Childhood Immunisation Programme starting from 2014. Currently, parents have to pay between HK$400 and HK$1,000 per dose.
The Health Department's Centre for Health Protection suggests children are vaccinated at 12 months of age and again at about 12 years old.
Dr Henry Yeung Chiu-fat said one in three of the patients he vaccinates against chickenpox at his private practice comes from the mainland.
Fake medicine scandals have occurred frequently on the mainland. The young Guangzi victim who was given fake shots died of rabies after being bitten by a dog.
Yeung said: "Mainland parents are more confident in the quality of Hong Kong's vaccine."
Two global medical companies who supply the city's chickenpox vaccines, Sanofi and MSD, said the shortage stemmed from a sudden increase in orders.
A spokeswoman from Sanofi said the company had run out of stock in January. "We do not know whether the increase was due to a surge in local or mainland demand, and we do not know when we will be able to supply the next batch of vaccine," she added.
Steve Lau Shing-chi, consultant paediatrician for Union Hospital, a private hospital in Tai Wai, said they had run out of stock on one type of chickenpox vaccine, citing a supply problem. He expected to have the vaccine back in stock in May.
"We are giving options to parents whose children have joined our vaccination package," he added. "They can choose to receive another vaccine, or they can wait a few months."
Chickenpox, or varicella, is a highly infectious viral disease with a fever and itchy blisters all over the body. So far this year, 1,104 children have caught chickenpox, and it usually infects 8,000 children each year.
It is generally a mild childhood disease, but complications such as scarlet fever, which has claimed some children's lives over the years, may occur in approximately 1 per cent of cases.
Both Lau and Medical Association president Dr Tse Hung-hing said vaccinating mainland children was normal practice in Hong Kong and they had not seen numbers rising in recent years.