Vaccine scandal latest to erode trust in China's health system


Improper storage of medicine has been linked to several child deaths, writes CLIFFORD COONANin Beijing

LU WEIWEI realised that something was wrong with his 17-month-old daughter Jiarun when she kept crying after getting a routine encephalitis jab last December.

He now believes his little girl was one of scores of children harmed by tainted vaccines. “I brought my little girl to the clinic in Shangqiu to get the vaccine. She was crying continuously, she had never cried like this before,” said Mr Lu, from Henan province.

Then she stopped crying, and hasn’t cried since. “My little girl is already one year and five months old, but she doesn’t talk, she doesn’t walk. She doesn’t even cry anymore.”

He believes his daughter suffered brain damage from substandard medicine. But when he tried to find out from the doctors what kind of vaccine his daughter had been given, he was told to go away and have another child.

He took his case to Beijing to petition for government action and compensation after the China Economic Times published a series of investigative stories linking the deaths of several children around the country to the improper storage of vaccines provided by the government.

The reports, linking vaccines to four deaths and 72 illnesses among children, caused a major stir and prompted an inquiry by the ministry which concluded that the allegations were not true. However, it conceded the vaccines, used for illnesses such as encephalitis, rabies and hepatitis B, may have been improperly stored. Few believed the government line.

There is widespread mistrust about public health issues since the government admitted it had lied about the extent of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak in 2003. Moreover, last year a faulty rabies vaccine had to be withdrawn from the market and bitter memories linger of the disastrous handling of an infant milk-formula contamination scandal that sickened about 300,000 babies and killed six in 2008.

Dissenting views in political reporting are not tolerated in the Chinese media. But there is increasing scope to report on issues like shoddy manufacture, corruption and health-service malpractice, and these reports are causing great change in society.

When Mr Lu came to Beijing during the summer, he met other parents, from Shanxi, Liaoning, Shandong, Jiangxi, Henan and Beijing, whose children had suffered from faulty medicine and they chained themselves together to prevent police moving them on. Many were injured in scuffles with police and were detained. Mr Lu was taken away by a group of officials from his hometown, accused of being an illegal petitioner. Petitioning is an ancient system dating from the imperial age, where Chinese who felt they were being abused by the system turned to the emperor for help, travelling to Beijing to petition to the supreme authority.

The tradition continues in the Communist era, but petitioners are often rounded up by officials from their home provinces or taken to detention centres or “black jails” in the capital.

Now Mr Lu is back, still looking for answers and so are other parents, although he is hesitant about meeting as he believes his communications are being monitored.

Among the other parents in Beijing are Shi Yufeng from Shandong province, whose daughter Wang Yuxiao, also 17 months, has not been able to move her legs since she was given a vaccination in March. “The doctor even did some tests before the vaccine and then I brought my kid in to get the vaccine. That evening she wouldn’t eat, then her body started trembling, her face was contorted. She was taken into intensive care, and after one month, she stabilised,” said Mr Shi. “I came to Beijing for the first time on September 20th, and I met Lu Weiwei in front of the ministry of health. No one cares about us, and we’ve had no support at all.”

Mr Lu insists he is not giving up on his daughter. “I want to find out the truth and the best way to cure her, because it is my fault, as a father, who didn’t take responsibility for her.”