Investigative Report

Tainted Vaccines

Residents of mainland China are increasingly bringing their children to Hong Kong for inoculations amid reports of tainted and improperly stored vaccines at home, causing concern among parents across the border who say the practice has led to a shortage in local serum.

Residents of mainland China are increasingly bringing their children to Hong Kong for inoculations amid reports of tainted and improperly stored vaccines at home, causing concern among parents across the border who say the practice has led to a shortage in local serum.

Vaccine safety and efficacy is a recurring problem in mainland China and again received public attention earlier this year when a mother and daughter from Shandong province were found to have sold serum that had not been properly refrigerated to families in 18 cities and provinces.

In the aftermath of the scandal, there was a spike in the number of parents traveling to Hong Kong from the mainland seeking reputable vaccinations for their children, but according to Hong Kong’s Department of Health, the number of nonresidents visiting the island’s government-run Maternal and Child Health Centers (MCHCs) has risen annually since 2011.

Cai Shiqin’s three-year-old daughter has suffered from abnormal brain development since receiving what he believes was a tainted hepatitis B vaccination in Guangdong province’s Foshan city about one month after she was born.

Cai told RFA that because of the tainted injection, he has had to spend more than 200,000 yuan (U.S. $30,100) over the past three years on recurring hospital bills, though her health has improved little.

“She has seen doctors, and the test results show that the left side of her brain is smaller,” he said, adding that his daughter does not know how to speak, other than to call for her father.

Cai said that only hours after receiving her hepatitis B injection as a newborn, his daughter had “turned pale, had cramps, and was foaming at the mouth,” before going into shock.

“The area where she had been injected developed a black and purple mark as big as an egg,” he said.

Cai has since petitioned the government several times to intervene on his daughter’s behalf, but her case has yet to be resolved and authorities have pressured him to end his campaign.

He said that whenever his daughter needs vaccinations in the future, he will take her to Hong Kong to get them.

“I am afraid [to take my daughter for shots] here. If she needs any vaccinations, we will go to Hong Kong for them,” he said.

“After the recent vaccine incident [involving the sales of bad serum], many are afraid to vaccinate. They are afraid of their children being injected with tainted vaccines.”

Vaccine supply

At the Fanling MCHC just across the border in Hong Kong, a mainland resident of Shenzhen surnamed Hu told RFA’s Cantonese Service she had brought her four-month-old son for a vaccination because she like many others was too uneasy to have him inoculated back home.

“The government must take this problem seriously,” she said, calling for better regulation of the vaccination market.

However, another mother in the same hospital, a resident of Hong Kong surnamed Xu, said she worried that the health of children on the island may be compromised if mainlanders continue to visit local clinics in droves, as this might lead to a shortage of vaccine supplies.

While the government has recently set quotas for how many nonresidents of Hong Kong are eligible to receive vaccines, private clinics do not, and Xu said more should be done to ensure that enough serum is reserved for local children.

“Many mainlanders have come here, and this has had an impact on these places [the MCHCs],” she said.

“If the public [on the mainland] had confidence in the government, parents would not come to Hong Kong for vaccinations. I totally understand … However, don’t flock here all at once.”

Hu said that for the sake of fairness, the local government and private clinics should establish different prices for local and nonlocal children.

Setting quotas

Hong Kong’s Department of Health launched a trial quota system on April 1 through which the island’s 31 MCHCs can collectively treat a total of 120 nonresident children each month in order to protect the interests of local children.

The department was unable to provide the number of children from Mainland China who receive vaccinations in Hong Kong, but told RFA that the number of nonresident children—including those from the mainland—who are inoculated had risen from 1,356 in 2011 to 4,008 in 2015.

In the first five months of 2016, 2,083 nonresident children received vaccinations, more than half of the annual total for 2015.

Hong Kong pediatrician Fung Yee Leung has estimated that the number of mainland children who will be vaccinated in Hong Kong would reach a new high in 2016, citing statistics from the Department of Health.

“From the government’s data, the answer is yes,” he said, when asked if he expected the trend to continue in 2016. “Many of those children go to the government’s MCHCs.”

Final data for 2016 are not yet available.

Yang Chaofa, president of the Hong Kong Doctors Union and a pediatrician, said that while the number of mainland children visiting his clinic for vaccinations had remained stable in 2016, the number of inquiries he has received regarding vaccination issues from mainland parents had grown significantly.

Yang said that his clinic keeps in frequent contact with pharmaceutical companies about vaccines, adding that the supply in Hong Kong “is currently adequate.”

Reported by RFA’s Cantonese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.