Death of Infant after Vaccination Causes Confusion, Concern
A father in Shenzhen displays packaging from the vaccine his baby received shorty after birth. The child later died and the hospital says the death could be related to the shot
(Hengshan, Hunan) – It was pouring rain on December 16 in Hengshan, in the central province of Hunan, when 70-year-old Li Nanxiu prostrated herself before photos of her husband's ancestors to make an incense offering. Near her was a picture of her long-deceased husband.
Li held incense sticks, wet from the rain, in her trembling hands, lighting them over and over. Once they finally caught fire, she abandoned herself to a deep sob, which continued until her voice was gone.
Meanwhile her daughter-in-law, Zhao Dan, mentally disabled since youth, sat in the front room watching television, unable to experience the sadness of a mother for a dead child.
It would be another two months before autopsy reports of the newest member of the rural family could be released. Li's grandson was one of two Hunan infants who died shortly after receiving hepatitis B vaccinations, casting doubt over the safety of China's hepatitis shots.
In early December, Li's month-old grandson died shortly after receiving a hepatitis B vaccination in a city hospital. After his death, residents of Li's village converged on the hospital, where in an altercation with authorities, Li was thrown to the ground and lost consciousness.
Li's son, Liao Zhonghai, a migrant worker who had rushed home from Foshan, in the southern province of Guangdong, upon receiving the news, had no choice but to return to work when he heard the autopsy results would not be available for months. For their debt-ridden family, survival is more important than mourning.
A little over 100 kilometers away, in Changning, also in Hunan, another family grieves. On December 8, an 8-month-old boy died after receiving the third of three hepatitis B vaccine shots and a flu vaccine shot. The bodies of both babies were sent to medical authorities in the provincial capital Changsha for autopsies.
Not long before the two deaths, at the end of November, a two-month-old in Hanshou, Hunan, went purple in the face after being inoculated with hepatitis B vaccine and a vitamin shot. He went into shock, but survived and is receiving treatment.
A total of six infant deaths have been linked to hepatitis B vaccines made by Biokangtai Pharmaceuticals Inc., based in the southern city of Shenzhen. And one death occurred after an infant received a vaccine made by a Beijing pharmaceutical company.
The China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA) and the Hunan Provincial Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) called for use of all vaccines from the same Biokangtai batch as those linked to the deaths to be suspended. The CFDA announced in mid-December that an investigation had been launched into Biokangtai and the results are expected to be released in 20 days.
On December 16, the Hunan CDPC announced said it had not discovered any relationship between the vaccines and "the infants whose bodies experienced abnormalities." After the first two deaths, Biokangtai also released a statement denying any problems with the company's products, and saying that "the infant deaths are suspected to be coincidental."
The vaccines involved in the deaths were offered to families for free. Later, some health centers began offering a different type of vaccine to families for a fee in order to ensure planned vaccination work was completed.
But none of that has eased the fears of parents. Reports of the deaths and the ill baby were quickly picked up by major media outlets, causing a national uproar. Although autopsy reports are still not available, parents are expressing doubts about the quality of government vaccines. Some are even refusing to have their children inoculated.
A Long Trip
It was still cold and foggy in Li's mountain village at 9 a.m. on December 4, the morning she took her grandson to be vaccinated.
Holding the child, she walked 2 kilometers along muddy mountain roads to the Wangzhou Village Center, where she waited for a bus. The bus took her to Jiangdong Township, where, after crossing a cable suspension bridge, she took another bus to Baiguo Town and the No. 2 People's Hospital of Hengshan County. There, her son received his second round of a hepatitis B vaccination.
Hepatitis B is widespread in China, where it is widely believed that vaccinations are the safest and most effective means of preventing the disease. In 1992, hepatitis B vaccinations were included in the National Immunization Program. The government began providing immunization drugs for free in 2005. As of 2013, vaccination rates for newborns exceeded 95 percent.
Hepatitis vaccines are administered in three shots; the first is delivered within 24 hours of birth, another follows a month later and the final shot is given six months later.
It was almost noon when Li and her grandson arrived at the hospital, where doctors quickly flipped through a booklet she brought called Hunan Province Children's Vaccination Certificate before giving the boy a shot. "Don't bathe him today," was the only advice they gave Li before stamping a line in the booklet labeled "hepatitis B vaccine (6 months)."
Li could have had the same vaccine administered in her village clinic, but since the boy was born in the County No. 2 People's Hospital, she figured that "a big hospital is better at giving shots."
Hengshan No. 2 People's Hospital is the second-largest comprehensive hospital in the county of more than 412,000 people, and serves the regular medical and emergency medical needs of ten surrounding towns and townships.
Fellow Wangzhou Village resident Wang Huifang said there is an old run-down clinic in the village, but it lacks the most basic personnel and medical equipment. "They can't even treat the simplest fever or external injury," Wang said.
A medical worker who lives in the village keeps records of all local children and reminds parents when to take them for immunizations.
The Hengshan hospital pales in comparison with more sophisticated facilities in large cities, but it is still deemed a big hospital by rural residents like Li and Wang. In its immunization office sit a refrigerator for storing drugs, an old desk and two chairs. On the walls are various health-related posters.
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