Worried parents from mainland China are flooding across the internal immigration border into Hong Kong in the wake of the country's latest tainted vaccine scandal, in a bid to get their children immunized safely, the government said on Friday.
Hong Kong health officials hastily slapped a quota system on child vaccinations this week, in a bid to protect supplies for children resident in the city after reports of child deaths began to emerge linked to recent vaccinations.
Now, the city's vaccination quota of 120 per month for non-resident children has already been filled for April at half of the city's 31 public health centers, officials said.
The authorities have set up a hotline to handle bookings from non-Hong Kong residents, saying that service for local families will be unaffected by the scare, government broadcaster RTHK reported.
China last week launched a nationwide probe of hundreds of people believed to be involved in an illegal vaccine-selling operation that was found to be peddling out-of-date or improperly stored vaccines, amid reports of child and infant deaths following immunizations.
But medical professionals and parents across the country have said there isn't enough transparency around the investigation to enable them to make informed decisions, including weeding out tainted batches of vaccine from existing stocks.
An all-time low
Rights activist Yang Zhanqing, who has previously helped the families of children injured by tainted vaccines to pursue legal action, said public confidence in the safety of Chinese medicines is at an all-time low.
"The authorities are being pretty useless, because there is a greater risk of harm to someone for every day that these vaccines remain in circulation," Yang told RFA.
"The government very seldom admits that vaccines can cause harm ... There is a lot of fear among parents when it comes to vaccines now, because a lot of children have died or been crippled by them," he said.
Yang said attempts by health officials to reassure the public that remaining supplies of vaccines are safe have largely failed.
"The government has itself admitted that they were past their expiry date, which by definition means that they don't pass [quality controls]," he said. "And yet they are still saying they are harmless."
Chongqing-based rights activist Zhang Qi, who is also a trained pharmacist, said problems with medicine safety are endemic in China's healthcare system.
"China has had a problem with medicine safety for a very long time, and the vaccine scandal is just the tip of the iceberg," he said.
"There are even more serious issues with other pharmaceuticals in China."
"We can only guess at ... how many strange diseases in China were caused by the misuse of pharmaceuticals," he said.
Demand for new procedures
A group of Chinese lawyers penned an open letter to China's cabinet, the State Council, on Monday, calling on the government to release a list of companies involved in the 570 million yuan (U.S. $88,123) scam.
The letter joined medical professionals in calling for the release of a list of companies implicated in the scandal, which went public with the arrest of two businesswomen surnamed Pang in the eastern province of Shandong last week.
It also demanded that new procedures be put in place for the monitoring of vaccine storage in the private sector.
The vaccine scare isn't the first time mainlanders have sought to tap higher public safety standards in the former British colony.
Since 2008, mainland Chinese bulk traders have sought to buy up supplies of infant milk formula in the city following the melamine-tainted milk scandal that killed at least four infants and sickened hundreds more.
Hong Kong authorities have imposed a two-tin limit on nonresidents buying infant formula in Hong Kong following growing public anger and fears that supplies would run out for local families.
Reported by Xin Lin and Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Lin Jing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.