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Vaccine scandal in China

Policies must be put in place to ensure orderly vaccinations

A mainland China scandal over untrustworthy vaccines assures an influx of parents and children from across the border coming to Hong Kong to be immunised. But there must not be a repeat of the chaos sparked by a similar calamity over baby milk formula

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 July, 2018, 3:26am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 July, 2018, 5:32pm

A crisis on the mainland over untrustworthy vaccines for children inevitably means a knock-on effect for Hong Kong.

High standards ensure confidence nationwide in our health system and medicines, assuring an influx of parents and their offspring in coming weeks.

But we do not want a repeat of the chaos sparked when a similar calamity in 2008 over baby milk formula led to a scramble that resulted in supply shortages and clashes between Hongkongers and mainlanders.

To avoid trouble, authorities have to ensure sufficient stocks for locals and quickly come up with policies to make certain there can be orderly vaccinations for non-residents at private clinics.

Health officials and the foreign pharmaceutical companies behind the vaccines to immunise against diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough and polio contend that for now, local supplies are adequate.

But they do not know how many mainland parents will want to bring their children to Hong Kong for injections. People in Shenzhen are already making the trip and some clinics are putting on extra staff to handle inquiries.

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Confidence in mainland-produced drugs has been rocked and the availability of foreign brands is limited.

Two major mainland pharmaceutical firms, Changchun Changsheng Bio-technology and the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products, have been manufacturing and selling ineffective vaccines.

Vaccinations can be a matter of life and death and parents are understandably outraged.

But the scandal has also severely eroded trust in the public health system and those who can afford medicine from overseas or trips to Hong Kong are already making preparations.

President Xi Jinping has called for a thorough investigation, harsh punishment for those found to have violated rules and an overhaul of the system.

But building trust will not come easily and could take years, so Hong Kong has to be prepared. Caps imposed in 2016 limit public clinics to providing vaccinations to 120 non-residents a month and mainlanders already account for 20 per cent of private sector visits.

With about 60,000 births a year in Hong Kong and the public health system providing free immunisation to babies through four rounds of injections in their first 18 months and follow-up jabs at six and 11 years, local needs are largely known and have to be assured.

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Stocks available for mainland children are not so straightforward a matter given the uncertainty. There may be a need for a quota and booking mechanism.

The government should ensure that circumstances are properly explained to residents and people on the mainland.

Every effort has to be made to avoid misunderstandings and prevent overcharging and a black market in vaccines – Hong Kong’s reputation depends on it.