China Accused of Selling Bad Vaccines

Posted on Mar 24, 2010 in Uncategorized

By KEITH BRADSHER

Published: March 18, 2010

HONG KONG — A newspaper article by one of China’s best-known investigative reporters has reawakened a controversy over whether provincial authorities improperly stored vaccines in rooms without air conditioning, rendering them ineffective, and then let them be administered to children.

China’s Health Ministry said on Thursday that it would look into the report, by Wang Keqin in the China Economic Times, while cautioning that it had examined the evidence in late 2008 and not found a widespread problem.

But Chen Taoan, the former chief spokesman of the Shanxi Province Disease Control and Prevention Center and still on the center’s staff, said in a telephone interview on Thursday that a senior official there had been relieved of all duties at the end of last year because of improprieties related to the vaccines.

Mr. Chen said that the center, which is part of the Shanxi Health Department, had required all hospitals in the province to buy vaccines at steep prices. To monitor compliance by the hospitals, the center put a sticker on each package of vaccine to show that it had been approved.

But the stickers would not adhere to the packages in air-conditioned rooms, Mr. Chen said, so the center routinely through 2006 and 2007 had the vaccines transferred to a warm room where the stickers were attached, Mr. Chen said.

“I saw boxes and boxes of vaccines piled up high like a hill in a hot room without air-conditioning,” he said. “Over the course of two years, I complained more than 30 times to the center’s leaders that these vaccines were no longer effective.”

Mr. Chen said that he was still on the center’s payroll but had been relieved of his duties because of his objections to the handling of the vaccines. The center stopped exposing the vaccines to heat in 2008 but did not recall those that might have already been damaged, he said.

The press office of the Shanxi Health Department declined to comment, saying that it had already made a statement to the official Xinhua news agency. Xinhua reported that Li Shukai, the deputy director of the department, had said that the China Economic Times article was “basically not true.”

The article said that the parents of 4 children who died and 74 children with severe illnesses were blaming the vaccines. Mr. Li told Xinhua that provincial health experts had examined some of the children and concluded that their problems were not caused by vaccines.

Mr. Wang said in a statement that he used pseudonyms to disguise the identity of many of the children in a list he published of those affected, and that the provincial authorities had not requested the true names of the children to check on their health.

Faced with complaints by parents like the ones in Shanxi Province, China’s Health Ministry faces a delicate balancing act between maintaining public confidence in vaccines and ensuring that any improprieties are punished.

World Health Organization data show that 99 percent of Chinese children receive all three doses of polio vaccine and 97 percent receive all three doses of a vaccine against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis. They also show the percentage of Chinese infants receiving vaccinations for hepatitis B, one of China’s leading health problems, rose to 91 percent in 2008, from 76 percent in 2004, the earliest year the figures were reported.

Hilda Wang contributed reporting.