Promotional efforts criticised as few book swine flu jabs

Ella Lee

The government's promotion of its swine flu vaccination programme has come under fire again after only 57 children were booked in for shots three hours after bookings opened yesterday.

After the luke-warm response, Centre for Health Protection controller Dr Thomas Tsang Ho-fai appealed for parents to get their children vaccinated.

The centre said it was unable to give the total number of children enrolled yesterday.

To encourage others, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, Secretary for Food and Health Dr York Chow Yat-ngok, senior health officials and medical profession leaders will have swine flu shots at a government clinic on Thursday.

University of Hong Kong microbiologist Dr Ho Pak-leung, who will also be vaccinated, said the Department of Health had failed to help the public make an informed choice in the face of fears about side effects.

'The government should sensitively address people's concerns,' he said. 'More information should be given to the public on the benefits of the programme.'

Dr Ho said the department had failed to highlight benefits such as the reduced likelihood of school closures and easing of pressure on hospitals.

From Monday, two million people will be eligible for free shots. They include 380,000 children aged six months to six years; 120,000 health workers; 890,000 people aged 65 and over; 570,000 people with existing medical conditions and pregnant women; and 1,000 pig farmers and slaughterhouse workers.

Thomas Tsang said more than 80 million doses of swine flu vaccine had been used worldwide and their side effects were comparable to those from the seasonal flu vaccine, such as redness and swelling of the injection site. The risk of a severe allergic reaction was one in a million.

In Hong Kong, a sixth of the 33,000 confirmed swine flu patients have been young children. Tsang said the rate for children being admitted to hospital due to swine flu was higher than for adults.

A spokesman for the centre said it would continue to publicise the programme, with advertisements on television and public transport. Health officials said they would approach district councils for help in spreading the message.

Ho said the experience of the United States showed that the second wave of swine flu was more severe than the first.

Medical legislator Dr Leung Ka-lau said: 'I think the poor response from the public is not much about the government promotion, but their sense of urgency for taking a shot.' Leung rejected the government's invitation to be vaccinated. 'I don't have the habit of taking flu shots.'

Children under 10 need two doses, administered one month apart, while others need only one.

People at high risk can also receive shots from private doctors from December 28 under a government-subsidised scheme.

Swine flu has killed 45 people aged 11 to 95 in Hong Kong.