Former Hong Kong health chief says school flu closures ‘justified’, slams misleading vaccine claims
All 1,600 kindergartens, primary schools and special needs schools in Hong Kong were ordered to close from Thursday before Lunar New Year holiday next week
Hong Kong’s former health minister Dr Ko Wing-man has thrown his weight behind his successor’s decision to suspend school amid a serious flu outbreak, while also lashing out against misleading claims made by local celebrities about vaccines.
In an exclusive interview with the Post, Ko also said it could be controversial to push for mandatory flu jabs as the government revealed on Saturday that it was considering a voluntary citywide vaccination scheme at schools during the next winter flu season.
“Suspending classes can affect a pupil’s [learning progress] and the school’s operation, so measures like these would not be implemented lightly,” Ko said. “I believe the seriousness of this flu season has justified [this measure].”
All 1,600 kindergartens, primary schools and special needs schools in Hong Kong were ordered to close from Thursday before Lunar New Year holiday next week, though the bureau asked schools to remain open to cater for children in need of care.
The decision came amid an acute shortage of flu vaccines as all clinics have already ran out, and each private doctor would each get 10 vaccines if drug makers delivered the next stock in late Match.
The government has said the early holiday was intended to stop transmission of the viral infection in the midst of a harsh winter flu season that has hit children hard.
Some members of the general public have suggested introducing a mandatory flu vaccination scheme in schools as a more effective preventive measure, but Ko said that would likely be controversial.
“It is understandable for people in society to have these considerations … but people in Hong Kong are becoming less and less accepting of anything mandatory, which is also why it would be a difficult job for the government,” he said.
Ko said that a mandatory public health measures could involve legislation, citing an example of the smoking ban for indoor public places that took effect in 2007.
“Can such measures get a consensus in the Legislative Council? How do you balance an individual’s rights and the collective need for preventive measures?” he said.
This comes as current health secretary Sophia Chan Siu-chee said the government was actively considering a voluntary citywide vaccination scheme at schools during the next winter flu season.
“The Centre for Health Protection could increase vaccination services in schools. The services could be carried out by private doctors, nurses or injectors,” Chan said on a radio programme on Saturday morning.
She admitted that the current vaccination rate among children was less than satisfactory as there were only around 60 schools that had arranged for private doctors to administer vaccines in schools this year.
Latest data from the Centre for Health Protection released Thursday showed between January 7 when the season began and Wednesday, there were 421 flu outbreaks at institutions in the city affecting 2,740 people mostly children. Of these outbreaks, 82.7 per cent (348) were in kindergartens and primary schools.
So far 13 children have been hit by severe flu requiring hospital admission, and two of them have died. Both were unvaccinated.
A total of 214 adults suffered from severe flu. Among them, 121 people died.
Despite the urgent appeals by health authorities to parents to get their children vaccinated, it did not stop two celebrities from doubting the effectiveness of vaccines and stating a number of claims that have been widely denounced by health professionals in the industry.
Concerns first arose when Canto-pop singer Kay Tse On-kei said vaccines contained mutated bacteria and mercury, while fellow artist Leon Lai Ming said that current vaccines were “leftover stock” from the previous season.
Medical and health experts across the board have dismissed these claims as misleading and false.
Ko also weighed in on the issue, saying that he hoped such statements would not “undo the hard efforts the government has made to implement public hygiene policies to protect Hongkongers’ health.”
“As someone in the medical industry, I have a responsibility to voice it out. I hope that such statements, which are not based on facts, expert opinion or science, would not continue to circulate in the public sphere” he said.