Parents and medical professionals hit out on Monday at a lack of official transparency surrounding the continuing problem of unsafe vaccines as authorities in Shandong said they have "busted" an illegal gang peddling out-of-date vaccines across the country.
The Shandong government said on Saturday it had evidence linking some 300 suspects to illegal deals of vaccine sales 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 carrying out illegal vaccine sales worth more than 570 million (U.S.$88 million), official media reported.
The cases are likely to further shatter public confidence in the safety of vaccines amid a lack of clear information from the government, medical sources told RFA.
"This is a matter of life and death ... but it's not easy to identify these things; we need to know which year they were produced in," a Beijing doctor surnamed Wang said on Monday.
"They should make an announcement about this as soon as possible ... so we can locate these items and cut off the supply, so no more people are harmed."
She said the government has yet to inform the medical profession which outlets are safe and which may be carrying illegal vaccines.
"They didn't tell us the sources of these vaccines; where they were getting them from. There are no details," the doctor said. "It says online that the sales were made with the connivance of salespeople at the pharmaceutical factories."
"Vaccines that are past their use-by date are sold off cheap, but they lose their effectiveness, and they can even give rise to side-effects," she said.'
A huge profit
Pang and the other suspects are believed to have bought 25 kinds of licensed and unlicensed vaccines from more than 100 pharmaceutical salespeople since 2010, state-run China Radio International (CRI) reported.
The vaccines were then sold on at a huge profit, police in Shandong's provincial capital Jinan said in a statement.
According to CRI: "The quality of the vaccines was questionable as they were not transported in approved conditions. Such vaccines have potential side-effects and can even cause disability or death if they become expired."
Shandong-based Sun Hongli, whose child was affected by substandard vaccines, agreed that such practices could be a matter of life and death.
"This is murder," Sun said. "[Are we supposed to believe that] the health-care authorities knew nothing about this?"
"Of course they knew, because if they didn't, it would have been discovered within six months to a year, but this has been going on for several years now," she said.
'So much grief'
Henan-based rights activist Liu Fengqin said she was very angry when she heard the news.
"Of course the government is responsible," Liu said. "Vaccines that haven't been correctly refrigerated can be very harmful and can cause great harm to children, who are then unable to live independent lives."
"This causes so much grief."
Parents and rights activists say the problem of out-of-date or substandard vaccines is endemic in China's health-care system, which has scant provision for independent safety checks.
Yu Tong'an, a parent of a child whose health was also damaged by a vaccine product in the southern province of Guangdong, called on Monday for the resignation of Li Bin, head of the Health and Family Planning Commission.
"I think that this first requires the resignation of Li Bin, who should take responsibility before the nation," Yu said. "There is no foul language that would adequately express the level of anger I feel about this."
"I have no words to express it."
Last September, the parents of some 360 children in the central Chinese province of Henan said the children had suffered severe health problems and two deaths after being given out-of-date vaccines.
And a 2014 investigative report in the China Economic Times said that improperly stored vaccines administered by Shanxi health officials for encephalitis, hepatitis B, and rabies between 2006 and 2008 had killed four children and sickened more than 70 others, with tainted vaccines being used as late as March 2009.
However, health officials have frequently said that the children's health problems are unrelated to vaccines.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Pan Jiaqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.