As China’s vaccine crisis unfolds, Hong Kong needs ‘urgent policy’ against ‘coming influx’ of visitors seeking jabs
Lawmaker warns that mishandling situation would be a blow to local administration, but others say fears are unfounded as free market can adjust
Hong Kong urgently requires a policy to ensure local children receive necessary vaccines before an influx of mainlanders drives up demand in the coming months, experts have said.
The warning from doctors and a lawmaker came on Monday as China remained gripped by a public health scandal in which a major drug maker was found to have supplied inferior vaccines for babies.
According to a mainland drug watchdog, Jilin-based manufacturer Changsheng Bio-tech sold substandard DPT (diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus) vaccines to the Shandong Disease Prevention and Control Centre, the agency in charge of public health in a province of about 100 million people.
In Hong Kong, all vaccines for children are imported from foreign brands. Private clinics usually see about 20 per cent of their patients come from across the border to avoid jabs made on the mainland.
With the latest crisis, that number is expected to soar in the coming one to two months, doctors warned.
“If the Hong Kong government does not adopt a timely policy, it could turn out to be a political crisis for the administration,” lawmaker Dr Kwok Ka-ki, also a private doctor, said.
Paediatrician Dr Alvin Chan Yee-shing said he believed Hong Kong might face a vaccine shortage in the next few months once mainland parents decided to take their children across the border.
While the city’s clinics have yet to see a rise in demand, Chan said he expected travel agents to organise tour groups for vaccinations, similar to how mainlanders previously flocked to Hong Kong for the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine.
“The government should come up with a way to ensure local babies get enough vaccines, and it should be done very quickly,” Chan said.
“Expatriates living in Hong Kong rely on private clinics to get vaccinations for their babies. This group should be assured they can get the jabs, too.”
There are about 60,000 births in Hong Kong every year. The public sector offers a free child immunisation programme involving a series of injections for babies at two, four, six and 18 months of age, with follow-up jabs when they are six and 11 years old.
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Chan estimated about 80 per cent of infants in the city received their injections from public clinics. The free four-in-one immunisation covers four diseases – diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough and poliomyelitis.
Five-in-one jabs are also available at private clinics, with added protection against haemophilus influenzae B, and a further six-in-one option provides extra coverage against hepatitis B.
In the private sector, the package price for the latter two types of vaccinations – which are dispensed in four doses – ranges from HK$600 (US$76) to HK$2,000 across clinics and hospitals.
Since the private market operates on a first-come-first-served basis, Kwok said the government should encourage local parents to book the jabs as early as possible so doctors can reserve supplies.
Chan said: “The situation for mainland babies getting the injections in Hong Kong is more complicated than [competition for] infant milk formula. It cannot be [regulated] just by setting a limit.”
He was referring to the 2013 controversy over parallel trading in which mainlanders snapped up supplies of milk formula in the city and took it home to sell, sparking a two-tin export restriction.
But Dr Ares Leung Kwok-ling, a senior hospital administrator who manages private hospitals and clinics, said he believed the free market could eventually cope with the rise in demand.
“Unlike the HPV vaccine, there are quite a few providers of these five-in-one or six-in-one vaccines, and bringing an infant all the way across the border is not as easy as coming to Hong Kong as an adult,” he said.
“So although demand may increase, it may not be too worrying. I believe the market can adjust given some time.”
Quin Tse, a Hong Kong mother whose daughter was born in April, said she was not worried about the possible surge of mainlanders to the city for vaccines, as her child received vaccinations at public clinics.
At least two foreign pharmaceutical firms are supplying vaccine packages – with four-in-one, five-in-one and six-in-one types – to the city.
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French company Sanofi Pasteur, one of the suppliers, said demand had not increased significantly in the Hong Kong market. Vaccine supply remained stable, a spokesman said.
British drug manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) said supplies of its five-in-one and six-in-one vaccines were stable. The company also said it would continue to liaise with authorities and doctors.
Hong Kong’s Department of Health said it had an agreement with suppliers to ensure sufficient stocks for children at the government-run Maternal and Child Health Centres. It would also continue to closely monitor the supply of vaccines, which remained stable, in both the public and private health care sectors.
Private clinic group Quality Healthcare Medical Services said the number of inquiries it received for child vaccines remained unchanged. The group said it would closely monitor market development and seek to maintain optimal stocks.
Meanwhile, the Medical Association said it received a letter from the department’s Centre for Health Protection on Monday, stating an anticipated “upsurge in demand for some vaccines”, especially those for children, in the local private market.
The association’s members were asked to contact the centre in case of any supply issues.
In mainland China, the DPT vaccine is subsidised by the government and given to infants across the country. Newborns are usually given three doses, with the first three-in-one jab at around three months of age to protect against diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus.
As China’s latest vaccine scandal unfolds, mainland parents have expressed a loss of confidence in the country’s vaccine safety standards. Some said they would seek out foreign brands in Hong Kong.
Information has surfaced on mainland websites offering details on where to find such injections in the city, including prices and benefits.