Chinese health authorities are investigating a series of seven infant deaths after they received a vaccine from a Shenzhen-based drug manufacturer, Biokangtai. The deceased infants all recently received a hepatitis B vaccination as part of a Chinese government immunization program.
China Central Television has reported that a team of government investigators were sent to Biokangtai to investigate the vaccine manufacturer amid public outcry about vaccine safety concerns. The Chinese launched the probe after health and provincial authorities reported the infant deaths occurring shortly after receiving the hepatitis B vaccine. Although one infant death has been ruled out since, six more are still under investigation.
Phone calls to Biokangtai headquarters were being disconnected after only a few short rings. However, the company did release a statement earlier this month. The vaccine manufacturer stated that they were confident that their product was safe and these infant deaths could have been caused by underlying diseases. They went on to say that showing symptoms after receiving the vaccinations could certainly be coincidental. The Biokangtai website states that coincidental diseases can arise most easily plus they are the easiest to misinterpret.
A senior government disease expert commented on Biokangtai’s statement, saying coincidence could be a factor in vaccine related deaths, but Biokangtai’s objective self-preserving statement was out of line.
Chief epidemiologist from China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Zeng Guang, stated that Biokangtai’s statement should not be considered as a conclusion. Dr. Guang said that Biokangtai has made the statements to protect their self-interests or they have the utmost confidence in their products.
The disease, Hepatitis B, can cause chronic liver problems with inflammation and jaundice. Infected people with Hepatitis B can infect others through blood or other bodily fluids.
The vaccine was part of the Chinese government’s national immunization program and provided free of charge to the infants. As of last Friday, Biotangtai’s hepatitis B vaccine had been suspended from inclusion in the program after the news of the infant deaths began to surface.
The one exception that was dismissed earlier, said that one infant had died of pneumonia. Three other infant deaths also happened in the southern province of Guangdong. Another two infants died in Hunan province and another infant was located in Sichuan. The death in Sichuan happened less than 24 hours after the infant received a vaccine made by a different manufacturer other than Biotangtai. According to the National Health and Family Planning Commission’s investigation, all six of the seven infants seemed to die in a similar way shortly after receiving a vaccine.
Currently all the infants are undergoing autopsies and experts will know the results of the tests in a few weeks time.
The Chinese public is losing much confidence in health authorities and China’s drug safety. Many improvements to the programs have been made since the government withheld important information regarding the bird flu and SARS outbreaks a few years ago. However, the public consensus is that the program is still shaky at it’s best.
This is not the first controversy over vaccines in China. In past few years vaccines for hepatitis B, encephalitis and other diseases also sparked public concern. However, in the former cases the Chinese health ministry said that improper storage of the vaccines was to blame and not the contents of the vaccine itself.
Chinese experts are urging the public not to panic and they continue to say that the vaccinations are safe. The officials say that more people would die from the diseases if they refused to inoculate their children. Dr. Guang suggests that changing vaccination procedures or refusing to be vaccinated could likely cause tens of thousands of deaths of the very same diseases that the vaccinations are made to protect people from.
The vaccine investigation after the seven infant deaths is still on-going.
By Brent Matsalla