Parents from across China converged on Beijing this week to call for compensation for the death of at least one child and severe illness in others linked to compulsory measles vaccinations rolled out nationwide last year.
Parents from the eastern provinces of Shandong and Anhui, Heilongjiang in the northeast, and the southwestern megacity of Chongqing displayed photographs and posters detailing their children's reactions outside government offices in Beijing on Monday, drawing a crowd of bystanders.
A mother from Chongqing surnamed Wen said that her 13-month-old son was taken to hospital with a high fever after receiving the injection in September. He died two days later.
Wen said she didn't believe local health experts, who had performed an autopsy on her son and had then denied his death was linked to the vaccine.
"My child weighed seven pounds eight ounces when he was born, and he was always very healthy," she said. "How come he was bleeding from the stomach after [the vaccine] was given?"
"I'm just an ordinary farmer .. .but I know that this definitely was connected to the vaccine. He had a high fever the very next day," Wen said. "By day three, he was gone."
"On the TV, they said that the vaccines are very safe. I believed them ... Now they just avoid responsibility," she said.
Promises not kept
Last September, authorities at the Longcheng No. 1 High School near Beiliu city in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region stopped administering the measles injections after the death of one pupil.
Luo Yunfeng, a third-year student at the school, died suddenly following a high fever just two days after receiving the vaccine, teachers said at the time.
A number of parents following the case online at the time said they were waiting to see the results before allowing their children to have the injection.
Back in Beijing, Zhang Lin, whose two-year-old son developed a blood disorder after receiving the injection during a nationwide measles vaccination campaign this time last year, said health ministry officials came out to meet the parents, but with little result.
"They met with us and discussed it with us," Zhang said. "But they said the health ministry wasn't in charge of this and told us to go back to our hometowns."
"When the health ministry announced the measles vaccinations they promised compensation for any abnormal effects caused by the vaccine, but they said it was safe," Zhang said.
Zhang said the promises had not been kept.
"There has been no way to get compensation. We have been trying for more than a year now, and all we get is empty words," he said.
"At the very least we want them to give us the medical costs back for our child," he said. "We can't even touch my son, and his life is still in danger."
Millions of children targeted
Health ministry officials launched the free measles vaccination program from Sept. 11-20, 2010 in a bid to eradicate the disease and reassure the public that the vaccines were safe.
Targeting 100 million Chinese schoolchildren, the campaign was the brainchild of disease control czar Hao Yang, who has said he wants to eliminate filariasis and measles by 2012.
A parent surnamed Li from the northeastern city of Harbin said his two-year-old son had been in hospital seven or eight times after suffering a reaction to the measles vaccine, and had been in critical condition on a number of occasions.
"Back in my hometown, they won't even give me a diagnosis," Li said. "They are still keeping me waiting."
"I don't think there's much chance of winning redress there, but now the health ministry is saying we should go back [and fight it there.]"
"We are not going back," Li said. "This vaccine caused our child's sickness, and no one has given me a response. They are just passing the buck."
A parent from Henan surnamed Zhang said his 11-year-old son had been given the injection by his school without his parents' knowledge, and had suffered blood poisoning and been sick at home ever since.
"Now it's as if my child is made of glass," Zhang said. "We don't know if they can treat this ... and now we have no money left. We have borrowed all of our relatives' money."
"All we can do is hope that the leaders will take our case seriously and give us a satisfactory response."
Pharmaceuticals poorly regulated
China's pharmaceutical industry is highly lucrative but poorly regulated, resulting in a string of fatalities blamed on counterfeit or shoddy medications in recent years.
An investigative report in the China Economic Times last year 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.
Reported by Ding Xiao for RFA's Mandarin service, and by Fung Yat-yiu for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.