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Chinese Government Must Act on Vaccine Issues

A recent scandal on the manufacturing of the rabies vaccines is just one more example of how some pharmaceutical firms put their profits before people’s health in China. This shows the need for the Chinese government to fully investigate the problem and punish those responsible for this abuse.

On July 15, the State Drug Administration discovered that Changchun Changsheng Bio-tech Co. altered its manufacturing records for the human rabies vaccines, because they have been rendered less effective. This was not the first time that this company had done something illegal. Last October, it was found that the company had produced “junk” diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus (DPT) vaccines, for which it was punished on July 20, 2018.

Last year, the company received a subsidy of 48.33 million yuan ($7.15 million). This is more than 10 times the fine it received after it was found to have produced defective batches of the DPT vaccines. This huge subsidy raises the question of possible collusion between the company and government officials, particularly since the company wasn’t apparently affected by this action.

In unvaccinated children who get serious cases of diphtheria, the toxin spreads through the blood stream and cause life threatening damage to heart and kidneys, nerve damage and paralysis. One in 10 children who get diphtheria dies from it. Children infected with the bacteria which causes tetanus may develop headaches, and have spasms and a tightening of the jaw muscle, which is why this disease is called “lockjaw”. Children who develop whooping cough have uncontrollable coughing spells which may last for more than a minute. Before the vaccine became available, whooping cough killed between 5,000 and 10,000 people every year.

In China, the DPT vaccine, which protects children from diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough, is part of the country’s national immunization program. Children are required to have this vaccine –which will protect them throughout childhood- for school admittance. If vaccinations cease, or ineffective vaccines are used, many more children would get those diseases.

Of the questionable DPT vaccines made by the Changchun Changsheng company, 252,600 doses were sold to Shadong province. Health authorities there started revaccinating children who had been injected with the defective vaccines and reported no major health consequences on those children.

According to the Chinese Center For Disease Control and Prevention, the leading public health agency in the country, China is the world’s biggest vaccine producer. More than 40 Chinese manufacturers produce 63 kinds of vaccines which can prevent 34 diseases. In the Chinese market, more than 90 percent of vaccines sold are made domestically.

If this recent vaccine crisis leads many parents to stop vaccinating their children, this could create a serious public health problem, since children would no longer be protected against frequent childhood diseases.

The government has created a special team to investigate this issue, which goes from vaccine production and marketing to their use in children. Government officials have promised to keep the public informed about the results of these investigations. Because this is not the first time that this problem has occurred, however, this indicates that there are structural loopholes that need to be analyzed and the culprits punished if the problem is going to be solved.

This recent episode shows that vaccine production should be closely controlled by the State. A restructuring of the whole production, supervision and marketing systems is imperative. Children’s health shouldn’t be subject to the greed of vaccine manufacturers and corrupt government officials.

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Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”

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