To fill flu vaccine shortage, Hong Kong officials consider doses meant for southern hemisphere
Despite extra 44,000 doses ordered for government scheme, worries continue that demand will not be met
Hong Kong health officials could introduce flu vaccines intended for the southern hemisphere in light of the city’s flu vaccine shortage this year, with private doctors saying they had no more of the immunity-fighting substance for their patients.
The possibility arose after the Department of Health already bought 44,000 extra doses of flu vaccines for a government scheme over the past three weeks. However, the shortage in the private medical sector has yet to be relieved.
The Medical Association on Saturday described the shortage as “acute” and said “many doctors” did not get the vaccines for their patients.
The group blamed the government for “gross underestimation of the need for flu vaccines”.
According to the association, Sanofi Pasteur, one of the vaccines’ suppliers, would deliver 24,000 doses to the city in mid or late March to the private market only. However, each doctor could order no more than 10 doses. The association criticised the plan as “far too little and far too late”.
A Sanofi Pasteur spokesman said it was invited by the department on Monday to provide Hong Kong in April and May an additional batch of flu vaccines intended for the southern hemisphere. The company said it would in the coming weeks discuss with its headquarters in France the possibility of introducing southern hemisphere vaccines to the city. Details would be announced later.
Speaking on Monday after a meeting of the department’s scientific committee on vaccine-preventable diseases, Centre for Health Protection controller Dr Wong Ka-hing said the panel had agreed that doses meant for the southern hemisphere could be used to address the city’s shortage.
Hong Kong has consistently followed the World Health Organisation’s recommendation on flu vaccines for the northern hemisphere.
“The composition of vaccines recommended for the southern hemisphere basically is very similar to those of the northern hemisphere,” Wong said. “The scientific committee thinks that if there is no way to obtain more vaccines for the northern hemisphere, it is possible to use those of the southern hemisphere too.”
“We would approach vaccine suppliers and ask them to contact private doctors if any vaccines for the southern hemisphere would be needed,” he added.
The two vaccines each contain four flu strains and are similar, except that the southern hemisphere vaccine contains the Singapore H3N2-like strain instead of the Hong Kong H3N2-like strain found in the northern hemisphere vaccine.
Committee chairman Dr Chow Chun-bong said there would be no major differences between the two in terms of efficacy.
“Whether [the vaccine for the southern hemisphere] provides better protection would depend on which virus strain would dominate,” he explained. “The one for the southern hemisphere might be slightly better than the one for the northern hemisphere, but the difference might not be significant.”
Chow said a person would not have to receive a jab of the southern hemisphere vaccine if he or she had already received one from the northern hemisphere.
Meanwhile, Chow cited an earlier study by the department as finding the effectiveness of vaccines this year against influenza B, the current circulating strain, at about 40 per cent. The study involved patients in private clinics. He said the rate was comparable to last year’s.
The Hong Kong public has been urged to receive vaccines, as the city’s flu levels remained at a high level. Between January 7 and Sunday, 256 adults were stricken with severe flu. Of this total, 149 died. Separately, 13 children were hit by severe flu and two of them died.
A flu outbreak was reported at a secondary school in Ho Man Tin on Monday. In total, 21 people were affected, including 18 pupils and three staff members.
Hong Kong took the rare step of closing kindergartens, primary schools and special-needs schools from last Thursday to advance children’s Lunar New Year holiday in an effort to halt further flu infections.