Hundreds of mainland women threaten legal action over HPV vaccine shortage in Hong Kong

The women are angry they cannot complete a course of inoculations to prevent cervical cancer as private clinics in the city experience a shortage of the vaccine

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 May, 2018, 6:01pm
UPDATED : Monday, 21 May, 2018, 11:41pm

Hundreds of mainland Chinese women are threatening legal action against Hong Kong clinics after they were told they would not be able to complete a course of vaccines to prevent cervical cancer because of a shortage of the jabs.

The women have set up several chat groups on mainland social media to complain about the shortage in at least five private clinics in Hong Kong. On WeChat, the chat groups for each of the medical centres had about 400 to 500 members.

The women paid for a course of three shots of the vaccine Gardasil 9 at privately-run clinics in the city to immunise against the human papilloma virus (HPV), which creates lesions and increases the risk of cervical cancer.

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But many women had only one or two jabs before the clinics informed them last week about the shortage. The clinics did not know when more stock of vaccine would arrive, they said.

One of the women hit by the shortage is Flora Yang, 22, from Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong.

She received her first dose of the vaccine in mid April at the Inspiro Medical Centre in Mong Kok and made appointments to take her second dose in August.

Yang paid HK$6,500 (US$830) for her treatment, but said the clinic later told her it does not have the vaccines for the second and third shots.

“I’m worried that I can’t receive my second and third dose within the ideal period of one year,” Yang said.

“The clinic unilaterally decided to terminate the contract. This made my money and time spent on taking the first dose useless.

“I didn’t accept a refund. I’m very angry with this clinic, We paid the money for three doses, so the clinic should prepare the three doses for us.”

Hundreds of women who booked the vaccines at the Mong Kok clinic have set up a chat group on WeChat to discuss their cases.

Calls made to the medical centre by phone over the past several days by the South China Morning Post went unanswered.

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Other Hong Kong medical centres hit by the shortage of vaccines include Modern Medical Service, M J Life, re-Health, Quality Health Care and the Goodwill clinics.

Women posting to the chat groups said they were trying to publicise their cases on the internet and had written formal complaints to the authorities in Hong Kong, including the Chief Executive’s Office, the Department of Health and the Consumer Council.

They also threatened to take legal action in Hong Kong against the clinics for breach of contract.

Another woman who paid for the course of vaccines at the Inspiro clinic said an agent told her they could find supplies of the vaccine in Hong Kong – but one dose would now cost HK$3,500 due to the shortages.

The price is significantly higher than the normal charge of slightly more than HK$2,000.

“I feel [the Hong Kong authorities} are kicking the ball to each other,” said the Hunan native, who gave her name only as Gigi. “The Chief Executive’s Office told us to find the Department of Health, but the latter said they don’t supervise private clinics. The Consumer Council hasn’t responded to our complaints.”

Doctors recommend that women should ideally complete the vaccine course within one year.

Hong Kong’s Department of Health said it has received queries from the public about the shortage of the vaccines.

“Enquirers are advised to consult their family doctor if they have queries on the vaccination and contact the Consumer Council if they wish to lodge complaints on consumer rights,” it said in a written reply to queries from the Post.

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The Hong Kong Consumer Council received 444 complaints about vaccine delays last year and most involved HPV jabs, according to figures from the council. It had received 195 similar complaints about delays to vaccine supplies as of May 14 this year.

Gardasil 9 is made by the US drug company Merck – known as MSD outside the US and Canada – and the company issued a notice in Hong Kong at the end of last month warning of shortages of the vaccine.

“Due to the continued increase in global demand for Gardasil 9, we are expecting supply constraints in Hong Kong to continue for the remainder of 2018,” it said.

A Hong Kong-based spokeswoman said there had been problems meeting demand for the vaccines in many countries around the world for the past two years.

Part of the demand in Hong Kong came from women crossing the border from the mainland, according to Neil Wang, greater China president for the marketing consulting firm Frost & Sullivan.

An earlier form of the vaccine has been used in Western countries for about a decade, but was only approved in China in 2016. The latest version, Gardasil 9, was put on the Hong Kong market in 2016 and was only approved by mainland regulators last month.

State television in China reported that Gardasil 9 was expected to be first available in Hainan province as early as the end of this month.

There were 107,400 cases of cervical cancer in mainland China last year, compared with 98,500 in 2013, according to Wang.