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Vaccine scare in China - what you need to be aware of

If you have read the health sections of any papers in China in the past months you have probably read about the sale of illegal vaccines; what some have dubbed the largest medical scandal in recent history. Here we discuss this "scandal", what it means for those living in China, what is being done about it, and ways you can avoid it.

Posted on Mar 30, 2016 by Rob McBroom

Vaccines in China

China is in the midst of a medical revolution, with the government pushing hard to implement universal health insurance for the country’s entire population within the coming half decade, and generally increasing the health of citizens. As such, China has seen some of the highest vaccination rates in the world. For example, according to the World Bank, the measles immunization rate for children aged 12-23 months is 99% in China, higher than pretty much every other country.

While this is a sound figure, it appears that vaccines, like many other products in the country, were the target of some unscrupulous individuals, as it was reported in February that police in Shandong province had busted up a vaccine ring by arresting 37 people - the number has since increased to 130 - for trafficking vaccines. According to an article published in Fortune, "The illegal vaccine ring was led by a mother and daughter from 2011 onwards, trafficking in expired vaccines made by licensed pharmaceutical companies for polio, rabies, chickenpox among others." According to news sources, the value of these vaccines is anywhere from USD 45 million to USD 90 million.


Is this really an important issue?

This news highlights a couple of important issues that anyone living in China, especially those with children, should be aware of. The first highlighted is the overall effectiveness and reliability of vaccines. In order for a vaccine to be the most effective it needs to be used before it is expired. If you are immunized with an expired vaccine there is a high chance that your body will not develop the necessary antibodies, which means you will be at risk of catching the disease you are supposed to be vaccinated against if you are exposed to it.

But it wasn't just expired vaccines that were being sold: The people selling these vaccines were reported to also not be storing the vaccines properly. Most vaccines have very specific storage conditions, especially live vaccines, that need to be maintained if the vaccine will work. According to the CDC, "Exposure of vaccines to temperatures outside the recommended ranges can decrease their potency and reduce the effectiveness and protection they provide. Storage and handling errors can cost thousands of dollars in wasted vaccine and vaccination."

The second issue highlighted centers around trust in regulators. Vaccines in China are regulated by a number of different bodies, including the China Food and Drug Administration. The problem here was explained in this Fortune article, "This scandal bears the hallmarks of previous cases: a fragmented market with tons of companies joining the supply chain, and regulators either too few or too feckless to stop pervasive wrongdoing."

Essentially, there are too few regulators and too many suppliers, which has been seen in previous medical scandals in the country including the poisoned infant formula scandal in 2008 and numerous other concerns. This in turn, has lead to a decrease in trust of the product among the population.

A loss of trust in vaccines provided in China can have extremely dangerous consequences for the population. First and foremost, people may forego vaccinating their children. This has been seen in many western countries, like the US and Canada, in the anti-vaxx movement. Both the US and Canada have seen outbreaks of diseases thought to be eradicated via inoculation and immunization largely because parents are simply not vaccinating their children. In China this could mean the resurgence of diseases on a massive scale, an extreme strain on the healthcare system and an increase in the cost of care, which means citizens without savings for care will likely forgo immunization, thereby increasing the issue.


It's not all bad

As the saying goes, 'the first step towards fixing anything is acknowledging you have a problem'. In this case, the Chinese government has acknowledged that there are simply not enough regulators capable of doing the groundwork required to actually regulate the total vaccine supply chain.

According to Reuters, "The case has also drawn ire from Premier Li Keqiang, who said regulatory bodies, including the health ministry and police, needed to work more in tandem, and that "dereliction of duty" would not be tolerated." True, as of the writing of this article, the government and its regulatory bodies have not announced any changes, but you can hope that now that it has been acknowledged by party higher-ups, action will be coming shortly.


How to ensure you get legitimate vaccines

Living in China you tend to get used to, or at least, a little desensitized to, fake or illegitimate products - they are pretty much everywhere. The concern here, however, is that fake or expired vaccines can cause tremendous health issues. Luckily, there are things you can do to ensure the vaccines you or your family receive are legitimate:


  1. Visit reputable international health centers - From the articles we have read, it appears that many of the vaccines were given at local health centers, or even at illegitimate health clinics. If you or a family member need a vaccination, it is strongly suggested you visit an international clinic or hospital. These centers use legitimate medicine and generally enforce strict storage and inventory rules which means that you will not be jabbed with expired or improperly stored medicine.  

  2. Ask for imported vaccines - There are different types of vaccines available in China, with some made in the country and some imported from other countries. To be 100% sure you are getting a legitimate vaccine, it would be worth asking for the imported vaccine.

  3. Ask to look at the package and the vial before being injected - Many vaccines are usually stored in either individual doses or smaller vials. Before being injected, it would be a good idea to look at the package. Properly labeled vaccine packages will have clear expiry dates and storage conditions. If the date is close, or it looks like the vaccine wasn't stored properly, then ask for another.

  4. Get your vaccines in another country - Alternatively, you can go to another country or city like Hong Kong to receive your vaccines. Locations like Hong Kong and Singapore, and even Thailand, have not had major vaccine issues, which makes them a viable alternative.

The problem with a few of the suggestions above is that they can be costly. One way to mitigate this is by securing an international health insurance plan. These plans have high levels of coverage and will often cover immunizations, which means you can ensure you or your family are receiving the best available. To learn more about your coverage options, contact the experts at Pacific Prime China for a free quote today.  


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