A four-year-old boy in the southern Chinese province of Guandong has died after receiving a vaccination, sparking further public anger as Beijing gave orders for a nationwide probe into the unfolding scandal.
The boy, a resident of Guangdong's Zijin county near Heyuan city, was identified only by his surname Shen, the Southern Daily newspaper reported.
He died on March 8 in the Heyuan People's Hospital after being given a group A + C meningococcal polysaccharide vaccine and a live attenuated polio vaccine at the Zhongba Huanle Kindergarten on March 4, the paper said.
Calls to the Guangdong provincial health and family planning department resulted in a continual busy signal on Tuesday, while calls to the Zijin country Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) rang unanswered during office hours.
Chinese authorities this week launched a nationwide investigation into a substandard vaccines scandal that has sparked widespread public anger over the country's appalling safety record, official media reported.
Illegal vaccine traders
China's Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has given local governments until Friday to trace the buyers of illegal vaccines after police in the eastern province of Shandong uncovered an illegal vaccine-trading ring worth around U.S.$88 million, state media reported.
The Shandong government said on Saturday it had evidence linking some 300 suspects to illegal vaccine sales transactions in 24 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions.
Among those formally arrested in 21 cases spanning Inner Mongolia, Henan, Hebei and Shandong were a mother surnamed Pang and her daughter, who are being held on suspicion of selling vaccines that were past their expiry or that had been improperly refrigerated.
China's FDA said it has identified nine vaccine wholesalers suspected of filing fraudulent reports of buyers' identities, state-run Xinhua news agency reported.
Online comments suggested widespread public anger at the latest in a long line of food and drug safety disasters to hit the unsuspecting Chinese public.
"When will there be supervision of this dynasty?" Sina Weibo user @xiaoyaxiaopingguoer55555 commented on a post that garned more than 12,000 comments on the Twitter-like service on Tuesday, in a satirical reference to the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
"Where is the hope for the citizens under a government like this?"
User @mangmangmangmonster linked the scandal ironically to the relaxation of population controls to a "two-child" policy.
"No wonder they want to let everyone have a second kid; they've poisoned all the first-born children," the user wrote. Another, @Dear_ZJy-, added: "It's chilling to think that a country can't even guarantee the safety of its children, who are poisoned with formula milk and vaccines, and who have to worry about being stolen by traffickers."
At least 300,000 babies and infants were made ill by infant formula milk laced with the industrial chemical melamine, which saw a total of 21 people convicted for their roles in the 2008 scandal, since when reports of melamine-laced products continued to emerge.
User @maomaoshanshangdedawang appeared to agree, commenting: "And they still want us to have kids for this country?"
Other comments called for better accountability.
"All I want to say is that they should be accountable to these children, and not let them lose faith in their own country," user @xuanbaobei1 wrote.
And a user from cell phone number 2215977033 wrote: "So much for public trust, haha."
Tip of the iceberg?
Henan-based Yang Fan, whose child was affected by a substandard vaccine, said the Heyuan boy's death is likely the tip of the iceberg.
"There have been a great number of reports of adverse reactions to vaccines all around the country, but we only hear about a few of them," Yang said.
"We are in a very frightening situation right now in which nobody dares to get their kid vaccinated."
Guangdong parent Cai Shibin, whose child was also affected by a vaccine, agreed.
"There have been so many problems with vaccines, but they've all been swept under the rug," Cai told RFA on Tuesday. "We really need freedom of information for these problems to come to light."
Rights activist Yang Zhanqing, who has taken a long-running interest in families hit by vaccine safety issues, said there should be a more robust process in place to ensure quality.
"There should be a process in place to determine adverse reactions or quality problems, and the authorities should call in experts to investigate," Yang Zhanqing said.
Vaccine activist Yu Tong'an said parents are currently planning to mobilize in response to the renewed scandal.
"We are planning to hold a demonstration in Beijing on April 14," Yu said.
Meanwhile, police in Shandong have detained a 47-year-old former doctor for allegedly selling substandard hepatitis B, rabies, mumps and Japanese encephalitis vaccines to nationwide distributors.
The woman surnamed Pang detained last week had allegedly sold about two million doses of suspect vaccines, state media reported.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.