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Hong Kong health care and hospitals

Hong Kong medical centres under fire after selling HPV cervical cancer vaccine Gardasil 9 when they couldn’t get it

Clinics accused of improper behaviour after guaranteeing the necessary three shots and then failing to deliver

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 June, 2018, 9:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 June, 2018, 9:01am

Hong Kong medical centres are facing accusations of irresponsible trade practices after they sold doses of the latest cervical cancer vaccine with no guarantee they could deliver the full three-shot course.

The miscalculations have left thousands of women without some of the jabs they paid for, which must be administered within a year at specific intervals.

About 800,000 doses of the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccination Gardasil 9 were administered in Hong Kong last year – an indication of the size of the problem. More than 90 per cent of those packages were sold to mainland Chinese visitors.

Complaints made to Hong Kong’s consumer watchdog about vaccination services have tripled since last year, to surpass 1,600.

HPV vaccination has become a lucrative business for the world’s major drug companies, who supply the jabs to Hong Kong’s private medical centres who in turn take bookings from mainland Chinese agents bringing women across the border.

Medical experts say the city’s speedier process for approving foreign medication and its reputation for higher quality health care have led to the influx of mainlanders.

But complaints have escalated to become protests and even rowdy clashes in some cases.

Shortage of HPV anti-cancer drug Gardasil in Hong Kong prompts protest outside Merck offices in Causeway Bay

The disputes revolve around HPV vaccine Gardasil 9, which can prevent up to 90 per cent of cervical cancers, offering the best protection so far available on the market. The supply in Hong Kong is solely produced by US drug company Merck, also known as MSD outside North America.

Gardasil 9 had become the preferred option for HPV vaccination since it was placed on sale in Hong Kong in 2016. Private obstetrician and gynaecologist Dr Kun Ka-yan said it offered better protection than the 60 to 70 per cent seen with other vaccines. The price of each dose ranges from HK$1,200 (US$153) to more than HK$4,000 in the private market.

While Gardasil 9 finally became available in Hainan province on the mainland late last month, Hong Kong has remained the ideal place for Chinese to receive the vaccine in the eyes of many mainland women. A Beijing-based research institution and an online travel agency even ranked receiving the jab in Hong Kong as first in a top 10 of “new travel experiences” last year.

But things have turned ugly over the past few months as thousands of mainland women joined groups on social media platforms complaining about the failure of Hong Kong clinics to provide a complete course of HPV vaccination after payment was made for the three-dose regimen.

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

According to MSD, Hong Kong clinics were informed as long as eight months ago that its production line had been disrupted due to a cyberattack, and were warned in recent weeks that supply would be affected “throughout the coming year”.

A health care industry insider who wished to remain anonymous told the Post that about 800,000 doses of Gardasil 9 were administered in Hong Kong last year, of which more than 90 per cent were given to mainlanders. If all these patients managed to obtain the complete course, they would number 260,000 people.

But so far this year the number of doses administered monthly has more than halved to 30,000 from the 66,000 last year.

The problem is not purely an imbalance of supply and demand, medical professionals said.

Lawmaker Dr Pierre Chan, who represents the medical sector in Hong Kong’s legislature, said he had recently received about 300 complaints related to HPV vaccine services, but the issue was not the shortage.

“It is improper trade practices,” Chan said. “[Those companies] received [customers’] money and made a service pledge, but failed to provide the goods or services.”

He warned that such practices would tarnish the city’s image and reputation.

More girls to get free HPV shots as Hong Kong expands vaccination scheme

William Chui Chun-ming, president of Hong Kong’s Society of Hospital Pharmacists, echoed that view and said the drug maker had already reminded clinics to make sure there would be supply of three doses for each client before accepting new customers.

As of Friday, the government’s Customs and Excise Department had received 3,423 complaints involving HPV injections this year. By June 8, the Consumer Council had registered 1,449 complaints about vaccine delays, mostly involving HPV.

However, the non-profit Family Planning Association said its stock of HPV vaccine was adequate at its clinics and youth health care centres.

Dr Gabriel Choi Kin, president of the Medical Association, which represents the city’s doctors, said private practitioners had been cautious in accepting bookings for the injection.

“If there were no guarantee of supply for the second and third doses, we would not take cases for the first injection,” he said.