Vaccine scandal: Chinese authorities have failed to learn lessons from past health scares

Loopholes and gaps in oversight have to be filled and mismanagement and corruption emphatically dealt with

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 March, 2016, 1:02am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 March, 2016, 10:20am

There have been so many food and medicine scandals on the mainland that authorities should by now have comprehensive oversight of the industries and when a case slips through the net, a flawless strategy to deal with the fallout. Understandably, then, social media is awash with anger and dismay at the revelation that untold numbers of children have been given vaccines that were improperly stored and managed. The time frame and scale are jaw-dropping, the incident having existed since 2011 and numerous provinces being involved. Parents are now in a panic and Hong Kong, where safety standards are trusted, can expect a rush on supplies for the rest of the flu season and beyond.

No threat to life is believed to exist; the World Health Organisation says that although the 25 vaccines to prevent illnesses including hepatitis B, mumps and rabies were given beyond use-by dates and not properly refrigerated, minimal safety risk is involved. That is cold comfort to parents wanting to immunise their children and now sceptical of medications on offer. It would have been different had authorities been transparent when the scandal first came to light. Instead, there was a cover-up, with the arrest of a woman and her daughter in February being the first hint and the announcement last Wednesday of the detention by police of 37 people in Shandong (山東 ) province confirming the seriousness.

Premier Li Keqiang (李克強 ) has ordered a thorough investigation. But authorities have made known that the woman had been previously jailed for a similar offence and had bought the vaccines from licensed pharmaceutical companies and used or resold them in violation of her probation. Many questions remain and they have to be answered.

China was at the same juncture eight years ago after six children died and 300,000 were made ill by milk powder laced with the chemical melamine to falsify nutrient levels. Authorities gave assurances, arrests were made and harsh sentences given. But confidence in Chinese products was rocked and Hong Kong has since become the favoured destination of mainlanders for baby milk formula, to the detriment of some residents.

Lessons have not been learned and vaccines are now in the spotlight. Hong Kong authorities and suppliers have to be prepared. Mainland officials are in an embarrassing position, but they cannot play down or ignore responsibilities. Loopholes and gaps in oversight have to be filled and mismanagement and corruption emphatically dealt with. There can be no more repeats: life and death are not matters to be taken lightly.