by MICHAEL WOODHEAD
It is quite remarkable that in the middle of the second week of the scandal around distribution of dud vaccines there has been no comment whatsoever from China's health minister Li Bin. In fact the response from the Chinese government could be summed up as an attitude of "Crisis? What crisis?"
The official line has been to focus on the perpetrators - the illegal wholesalers and distributors in Shandong - and to avoid any analysis of how things could go so badly wrong - and what the Chinese public should do about it all.
It seems clear that the government has been 'harmonising' (deleting and censoring) media and online articles and social media discussions relating to the vaccine scandal. The media articles that originally drew attention to the crisis have been removed, and instead replaced with bland assurances from officials that the matter is being investigated and all should be well.
Most of the permitted coverage has been along the lines of the WHO China response, namely:
- The dud vaccines are unlikely to cause any adverse effects even if not handled according to the cold chain.
- Most of the vaccines have already been used, and there have been no reports of spikes in adverse events.
- The illegal distribution is being investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice.
There has been no response to important questions such as:
- How many people received dud vaccines and have any of them acquired diseases because of poor immune protection?
- What are the most frequent and potentially most severe diseases covered by the dud vaccines?
- What needs to be done to trace/follow up/test and re-vaccinate those who have received dud vaccines?
- How can the public be reassured that vaccines currently in the system are not duds? Batch numbers? Locations?
Once again the "SARS hero" Dr Zhong Nanshan has been given airtime to comment. Speaking at a national influenza conference in Hainan (unfortunate timing) Dr Zhong said there was no need to doubt the quality of Chinese made vaccines and no reasons for panicked parents to seek foreign vaccines or to go to places such as Hong Kong for vaccinations. He also said (quite rightly) that he hoped the vaccine scare would not undermine China's immunisation program, which has markedly reduced or eradicated diseases such as measles, whooping cough, polio and hepatitis B in China.
Fine words, and not to be disputed, but there is a need for more leadership on this issue if public faith in the public vaccination system is to be restored. As I've said before, trust is not easily won and it is a two-way street. If the government does not trust the public with information - if it closes down the communication channels and deletes articles about the vaccine problems then it will just encourage the public to turn to the rumour network.
On a wider level there is little hope for a robust medical and healthcare safety system when there is a culture of punishing those who speak out. In other countries there has been grudging acceptance by authorities that transparency and accountability are needed in clinical matters to ensure safety. Staff have to feel confident that they can speak out - and also feel that it is their duty to do so, rather than feel intimidated or a false sense of loyalty to persons or organisations. In China under Xi Jinping there is currently a major crackdown on those who are outspoken or who dare to question "the core".
And so at the end of March we find that China is facing its biggest health safety crisis since the melamine in milk saga of 2011. And yet if you turn to the medical forums such as DXY.cn there is no discussion and no advice there. They have presumably also been 'harmonised'. A week ago when the scandal first became public, the Deputy director of the Department of Immunology at Peking University Professor Wang Yue expressed shock at the safety implications of the dud vaccine trading.
"This is murder" he said, referring tho the likelihood of people dying from vaccine preventable diseases.
The article has now been taken down.
It's important for Li Bin to show some leadership and act swiftly to restore the public's faith in China's vaccination system. If not, vaccines may become like China's milk formula industry - untrusted, shunned and encouraging consumers to turn to expensive alternative 'grey market' suppliers.
Meanwhile, here are some links to articles of interest:
SARS hero Zhong Nanshan reassures on the vaccine problem, urges public to maintain faith in China's vaccine program
Propaganda Ministry directive: "Don't hype the news on illegal vaccines"
VOA article on the vaccine articles that have been removed and the vaccine keywords that have been blocked on social media
Netizens claim that China's propaganda ministry is highlighting news about Japan's war crimes as a distraction from discussion about vaccine scandal
Hong Kong media raise fears that vaccines may be the new milk powder - will mainland 'raiders' flood Hong Kong to buy up good quality vaccines?