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Tuesday, March 29, 2016, 16:59

Vaccine scare sends mainland parents to HK

By Shadow Li and Timothy Chui

HONG KONG - The number of mainlanders seeking vaccines in Hong Kong has surged in the wake of an expired vaccine scandal on the mainland perpetrated by a mother-daughter team.

The SAR’s Department of Health said the number of non-local infants receiving treatment in the Family Health Service increased by 56 percent in February compared to the same period last year.

A total of 4,008 non-local children used the Hong Kong service for children under five years old in 2015. The authorities are considering suspending the services for non-residents if demand threatens the stability of local supplies.

Hong Kong Secretary for Food and Health Ko Wing-man said Sunday there was no evident shortage in vaccines while the Food and Health Bureau will ensure adequate supplies are on hand for local infants.

Mainland residents coming to Hong Kong for vaccination is hardly a new phenomenon with the city’s quality controls held in high regard by expectant mothers checking into private hospitals to deliver their babies to traders stocking up on baby formula for resale on the mainland.

A mother and daughter were arrested by police in Shandong last month for illegally selling improperly stored and expired vaccines worth an estimated HK$679 million in 24 provinces since 2010.

Premier Li Keqiang has ordered a detailed investigation into the fraud which has shaken public confidence in the national vaccine supply chain but citizens in major cities remain largely unaffected, with the expired vaccines having been distributed mostly in second and third tier cities.

Father of a one-year-old boy from Shenzhen Zhong Huaqing said he would wait for further clarification before getting his baby’s next vaccination in his locale, with the 32-year-old technology company manager’s faith in Shenzhen’s healthcare unshaken.

"Besides, it’s a lot of trouble and takes a lot of time to get the same shots in Hong Kong.  It’s also much more expensive,” Zhong told China Daily.

Middle men meddling

The crux of the vaccine scandal amounted to suspect middlemen, University of Hong Kong professor of pediatrics Patrick Ip said, noting centralized procurement was a fixture in the Chinese mainland and the Hong Kong SAR.

"Whenever there are middlemen, someone is looking to profit and that sometimes means cutting corners,” Ip said.

The professor added expired vaccine stocks are carefully monitored and disposed of in Hong Kong, noting a lack of controls over the disposal of expired vaccines would create a possible source for unscrupulous resellers.

Ip said the scandal had rightfully worried a number of parents on the mainland who were increasing opting to pay a premium and secure vaccines manufactured overseas.

Yet Ip stressed there was no evidence that the vaccines themselves were fakes, adding social media reports of fatalities linked to expired vaccines were being overblown and reiterating the World Health Organization’s advice that the more likely side effects included readily treatable infections and a lack of immunity due to the vaccine’s lack of efficacy.

Ip noted the scandal did not involve common vaccines against measles, mumps and hepatitis A and was linked to elective treatments which are not provided free of charge by the government in the mainland and Hong Kong.

Ip said Hong Kong was unlikely to see a similar vaccine scare due to its centralized approach to procurement, quality assurance and decades of experience in managing childhood immunization programs.

All things vaccines in Hong Kong are routed through the Department of Health, which is responsible for procurement and maintaining an approved list of vendors for private practitioners as well as keeping track of every child’s immunization records.

The Department said its vaccines are procured directly from overseas manufactures and delivered straight to the Family Health Service for use while licenses are needed for production and sales. Violators face maximum fine of HK$100,000 and two years imprisonment.

"Improper storage is a big problem and the government will come down hard on any would be violators.  This had bred a very consciences and cautious local approach to vaccines,” Ip said.

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