As news of an illegal vaccine distribution scandal in China continues to emerge, outraged citizens are demanding to know why the government waited so long to inform the public that their children were at risk.
According to the government, an illegal vaccine ring in operation since 2011, distributed $88 million worth of vaccines that had expired or been improperly refrigerated. This placed all children who got the shots at risk of disability or death. It is not known how many children were harmed by the illegal vaccines.
The government has known about the ring since April 2015, but did not announce its knowledge until this March.
“It’s been nearly a year and then they reveal this!” said one angry user on the micro-blogging network Sina Weibo. “Isn’t this genocide? Words cannot express how angry I am!”
According to state officials, the illegal ring was headed up by a mother and daughter – recently arrested in Shandong province – who illegally purchased vaccines from more than 100 separate pharmaceutical salesmen, some of them unlicensed, then resold them to disease control and prevention centers or to unauthorized sales agents for marked up prices. The ring’s operations spanned 24 provinces and cities.
According to news sources, the mother is a former doctor who had been fired from a public hospital in 2009 for illegally selling vaccines, and sentenced to three years in prison. Her daughter is also a medical school graduate.
Police have carried out more than 20 raids to seize improperly stored vaccines sold as part of the ring. Following the arrests, China’s Food and Drugs Administration asked local offices to trace the path the illegal vaccines took in order to help identify patients who might have been affected. The effort has already implicated nine vaccine wholesalers in six provinces for filing false paperwork to conceal their buyers’ identities.
At least 25 vaccine types were involved in the illegal operation, including vaccines for encephalitis, hepatitis B, meningococcal disease, mumps, polio and rabies. None of the vaccines involved are required under China’s national vaccine laws – which means that patients who do choose to get them have to pay for them out of pocket, rather than receiving them free.
It is still unknown how many doses of compromised vaccines were distributed.
News that authorities waited nearly a year to publicize the presence of unsafe vaccines on the market has caused widespread anger in China. Citizens are also asking why the leader of the ring was able to so easily return to committing a crime for which she had been previously imprisoned.
“24 provinces, 5 years already, and how many children!” one Sina Weibo user said.
“This is such a huge case and not a single regulatory official has come out to apologize, not a single one has resigned… this system which doesn’t care whether ordinary citizens live or die makes one’s soul tired,” another said.
Further anger was sparked by the announcement on March 21 that a boy had died following vaccination – despite government claims that his death was unrelated to the illegal vaccines.
The four-year-old boy died in Guangdong province just days after being vaccinated against polio and meningococcal disease. Authorities said that they were investigating, but denied any connection with the vaccine ring.
“If the exact cause is still being probed, how can you already say that it has nothing to do with the problematic vaccines?” a Sina Weibo user asked. “You’re tying yourself up in knots.”
China has been plagued by food and drug safety scandals in recent years. It’s not the first vaccine scandal, either.
Between 2006 and 2008, in Shanxi province, four children died and more than 70 developed severe side effects after being given improperly refrigerated vaccines.
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