How one school has led the fight to protect Hong Kong’s children from the flu season
Misconceptions by parents and perceived inconvenience of a government-funded scheme puts city far behind others in defence against virus
An initiative by a Hong Kong primary school has pushed its flu vaccination rate for pupils to more than 70 per cent this year in stark contrast to the overall figure of 18.3 per cent for children across the city.
The low local rate in general, compared with Britain at over 60 per cent and Macau at 70 per cent, is because some parents find it inconvenient to take their children to clinics for jabs under the government-funded scheme.
Baptist Rainbow Primary School in Wong Tai Sin overcame this hurdle by bringing the vaccination service to pupils on campus.
The move came amid worries that young people in the city do not have enough protection against the influenza B virus, a predominant strain this year that has threatened a large proportion of the population. As the virus has been inactive in the past few years, not many people may have developed antibodies to fight it.
Since the winter flu season began on January 7, at least eight children who were infected with the strain suffered from serious complications, leading to two deaths.
A total of 93 adults suffered from the severe form of flu, with 50 deaths from such cases as of January 25.
So far around 200 outbreaks in schools and other institutions have been reported, mostly in primary schools and kindergartens.
Experts urged the government to give more incentives for schools to introduce similar schemes to the one at Baptist Rainbow Primary School, to raise the vaccination rate of the city’s children.
“The measures adopted are of high value and can be referenced by other schools,” University of Hong Kong microbiologist Ho Pak-leung said. “Giving injections in schools is the most efficient way of gathering the age group and getting them vaccinated.”
Baptist Rainbow Primary School first invited NGOs to give flu vaccines to pupils during classes three years ago, leading to a vaccination rate of 54 per cent.
This year, it went one step further by requiring parents to submit an explanation if they refused to allow their children to be vaccinated. The move pushed its coverage to 74 per cent among 550 pupils.
“We just want to reduce the trouble of parents having to bring their children back and forth from the clinics,” principal Chu Tsz-wing said.
“We are not forcing anyone to take the flu vaccine, it is entirely up to parents and we respect their decisions. But if some of them do not want their kids to participate, we just want to understand why, to facilitate communication between the school and parents.”
Parents who opt out of the scheme said they believed the jab was useless or unnecessary, and worried about side effects or allergies.
But Ho said such worries were unfounded and parents might have many misconceptions. The protein levels in the vaccine were extremely low and were unlikely to trigger an allergic reaction.
Professor David Hui Shu-cheong, an expert in respiratory medicine from Chinese University, said not many children received flu vaccines as their flu symptoms were usually mild. He added that the likelihood of complications developing was not high. “Side effects such as developing a brain inflammation are rare,” Hui said.
He said the immune systems of children aged between six months and 12 years were not fully developed so they should still take special precaution when receiving flu vaccines.
Ho from HKU said the Education Bureau and Food and Health Bureau should help educators with manpower issues to give flu jabs to pupils in schools.
There are about 70 doctors who are willing to visit schools to administer the injections, according to the Department of Health.
But Ho acknowledged that it would be difficult to get all 1,600 primary schools and kindergartens in the city involved, especially when the jabs should be taken within the three months leading to the peak of the flu season.
Under the government’s scheme, which has seen a low participation rate over the years, children aged between six months and 12 years are eligible to receive subsidised flu vaccines.
But so far only 18.3 per cent of the city’s population of children in the age group have been vaccinated. The rate, however, is the highest for the group in the past five years.
Hong Kong’s figures are way behind that of developed countries and cities. In Macau, it was estimated that 30 per cent of those aged six months to 35 months, and 72 per cent of those aged between three and 12 years have been vaccinated in the current season.
In Taiwan, the figure is close to 50 per cent for children aged between six months and six years. For primary pupils aged seven to 12 years, the rate was 74.4 per cent.
In Britain, from September to December last year, the percentage of vaccinated children aged four to nine years ranged between 54.8 and 61.8 per cent.
While Macau, with a population of some 650,000, provided free flu vaccination to all residents, Hui said it was not possible for Hong Kong, a city of 7.3 million, to follow suit.
He said better education was needed to remind parents of the importance of vaccination for their children.
In response to recent reports stating that doctors had pointed to a shortage of flu vaccines in the city, the Department of Health said it had bought extra vaccines, which are expected to arrive by the start of next month at the earliest.