Investigative Report

The Children Affected

A decade after one of China’s worst incidents involving tainted vaccines, the government has yet to adopt substantive measures to eradicate corruption in the pharmaceutical industry, where companies routinely cut corners to increase profits, according to parents.

Pharmaceutical companies have been found to knowingly manufacture and sell poor quality vaccines that are often stored incorrectly or have expired, causing them to lose their effectiveness. Many of these vaccines are provided to young children.

According to government estimates, up to one million children were victimized as a result of tainted vaccines administered in Shanxi province between 2006 and 2007, causing many to die or develop serious disabilities.

Yi Wenlong, a businessman from Shanxi’s Linfen city, told RFA’s Cantonese Service that he must attend daily to the health of his 21-year-old daughter, who developed acute disseminated encephalomyelitis after receiving a tainted vaccine at school during the scandal at the age of 11.

Yi took his daughter for treatment in Beijing and was told by a doctor that her condition was caused by the vaccination, but health officials in Shanxi denied the claim and several relevant government departments refused to take responsibility for her illness.

“I first went to talk to the school, but the school told me to contact the Center for Disease Control (CDC),” he said.

“The school administered vaccinations to children to make money, but they passed responsibility on to the Ministry of Health, who said they were unable to conduct evaluations or diagnose the students.”

According to Yi, the Ministry of Health ordered Shanxi’s Provincial Medical Association to handle his case, but while the organization had broken laws by allowing the tainted vaccines to be administered, “no one was punished.”

“None of the departments were willing to bear responsibility, so it got pushed upward, one step at a time,” he said.

While the vaccine scandal in Shanxi occurred nearly a decade ago, the legal rights of parents with victimized children have yet to be addressed.

Yi told RFA the authorities’ response so far has been to provide financial help to affected families while completely avoiding any responsibility.

“Assistance and compensation are two completely different concepts, because compensation is a bit more involved,” Yi said.

“Assistance just means ‘I’m helping you,’ which is also a way to say ‘your child’s problem isn’t related to the vaccine,’ whereas if they provide me compensation, then they’ll have to bear responsibility.”

According to Yi, parents have received a wide range of assistance from the authorities, with some getting as much as 1 million yuan (U.S. $150,650) and others getting as little as 70,000 yuan (U.S. $10,550).

“But the parents don’t want to drag it on any longer, and now they basically don’t have any rights to petition,” he said.

Scandal exposed

After the media initially reported on tainted vaccines in Shanxi, the People’s Procuratorate of Taiyuan city conducted an investigation into the incident, but 10 years later the matter remains unresolved and no one has been brought to justice for their role in the scandal.

In March 2009, Shanxi’s provincial CDC office convened a mid-level staff meeting and announced that the vaccines had met its quality standards, though former CDC chief Chen Taoan later admitted that the conclusion reached at the meeting was inconsistent with the actual investigation.

A year later, Wang Keqin of the China Economic Times published an article entitled "Shanxi Vaccine Investigation Chaos” after conducting a six-month inquiry into the scandal, exposing collusion between Huawei Co., the Ministry of Health, and the Shanxi provincial government.

The report also detailed monopolization of the local vaccine market and the knowing production of serum at quality far below required standards.

Wang has said he interviewed around 240 Shanxi families whose children all developed similar symptoms after receiving vaccinations. The most critical cases involved children who died, developed serious disabilities, or fell into a “semi-vegetative state” post-injection.

His report triggered a storm of public protests and prompted the Ministry of Health to order the Shanxi provincial health department to quickly resolve the issue.

Days after it was published, the Shanxi provincial government held a press conference, pledging to reinvestigate the matter and admitting to vaccine irregularities. However, the government asserted at the time that the vaccines had remained safe despite being exposed to high temperatures.

Former CDC chief

In a recent interview, Shanxi’s former CDC chief Chen Taoan told RFA he had learned that at least 500,000 children were vaccinated during the scandal and that he had decided to report the issue in the hopes of preventing additional children from being exposed.

He said that at the time many parents of children affected by the vaccines sought explanations about what had happened to their sons and daughters and pressured the local courts to ensure the case was handled impartially.

Chen also assisted some parents during their litigation, but said many received threatening text messages ordering them to “keep their mouths shut” and not to “try little tricks.”

"The group impacted in Shanxi province included between 500,000 and one million children who received toxic vaccines, and if you don’t publicize this sort of thing then the victims remain hidden in the background,” he said.

“Once it's been made public, ordinary people are no longer harmed. I knew I might receive some threats, which is normal, but I consider my personal interests to be aligned with those of ordinary people and realized I had to expose the matter.”

Regulatory fault

Zhao Guoping’s daughter suffered convulsions that caused epilepsy after a clinic in Shanxi gave her a Japanese Encephalitis Type-2 vaccine in 2006 when she was less than a year old. Now 10 years old, she has since been diagnosed with a “level one mental disability.”

“She still used to speak a little, but she hasn’t said ‘Mom’ in two years and she needs adults to look after her, so it’s very serious,” he said.

Zhao said it was only in 2010—after the tainted vaccine scandal was exposed—that he realized his daughter’s illness was linked to the incident. He paid the Taiyuan Medical Association to evaluate his daughter, but the tests were never performed so the government “could continue hiding the truth.”

In May, Zhao Guoping became the first parent of a child affected by the tainted vaccines to successfully file a lawsuit involving regulatory fault against the medical association, but the court ruled that the filing exceeded a statute of limitations and would not hear the case.

“I paid 2,500 yuan (U.S. $375), but in six years’ time they never evaluated my daughter,” he said.

“The local government interfered and the case has still not gone to trial because the lawsuit exceeded the five-year statute of limitations.”

Ongoing issue

Many children in Shanxi province have developed disorders like Zhao’s daughter after suffering adverse reactions to vaccinations for Japanese Encephalitis, Hepatitis B, and other illnesses—both prior to and following 2006—but very few parents have pursued judicial proceedings.

To date, no one has been held accountable for the scandal, and this lack of a resolution has contributed to doubts over the safety of approved vaccines in China—to the extent that many parents refuse to get their children inoculated.

Subsequent scandals, including one earlier this year in which a female medical school graduate from Shandong province was found to have sold vaccines to 24 provinces and cities over five years without approval, have done little to assuage parents’ fears.

Yi Wenlong told RFA that the Shandong vaccine scandal was ultimately linked to what happened in Shanxi 10 years earlier.

“Those involved in the Shandong vaccine case are also the people involved in the Shanxi vaccine case—they simply fled because they weren’t punished,” he said.

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