Saturday, November 14, 2009

To have or not to have the Chinese Swine flu Vaccine?

Here in China, public worry about swine flu is about as high as everywhere else in the world. Even though for a long time the Chinese authorities quarantined anyone who was found to have a temperature on entering the country, in the end the flu was obviously not deterred by such measures and penetrated China, just like you would expect from a flu.

There are different figures about how many people have died of it, depending on how the deaths are recorded, but it seems that around 40-60 people have already died of the illness in China, with dozens of thousands being infected. Here in Beijing, there seem to be even more people walking around with little masks on their faces than there usuallly are. A few weeks ago, a university student in a Beijing university died of swine flu (not in my university, fortunately), and hundreds of other students turned out to be infected.

The Chinese health authorities have already managed to domestically produce millions of swine flu vaccines, and they plan to vaccinate 65 million people (or 5% of the population) by the end of the year. Up to now, over 12 million people have already been vaccinated. Beijing receives priority of course, and they are talking of offering the opportunity to be vaccinated to all the Beijing residents very soon (but will it really be all the residents, or only those with a Beijing Hukou?). It must be said that China is the first country to be able to produce so many copies of a swine flu vaccine, but many are uncertain about the safety of this Chinese-made vaccine. It does seem a bit suspicious that China has been able to produce millions of vaccines before any other country, and it maybe that the vaccine's safety standards are not of the best. Many people are refusing to have the vaccination because of concerns over its quality.

Personally, I was offered the opportunity to be vaccinated last friday, alongside all the other students in my college (all the university's students in Beijing are being offered the vaccine), however after thinking about it a lot I decided to decline the offer. There have been a few cases of people having anaphylactic shocks after being vaccinated, and I do seeem to have a slight predisposition towards allergies. The message which we were given a few days previously about the vaccination was not encouraging. It stated that one should not take the vaccination if one is allergic to a long list of things, including eggs and some chemicals I have never heard of, and that anyone which chronic diseases (or of course a cold or a flu) should not be vaccinated. Finally, it asked those who would be vaccinated to wait on the premises for half an hour "to make sure they are ok". I have taken vaccines in the past, and I have never been asked if I was allergic to anything beforehand. I have certainly never been asked to wait half an hour after the vaccination in case I felt ill.

The whole tone of the message made it feel like the health authorities are not too confident of their own vaccine's safety, and this pushed me towards deciding not to take it. The next day, the headline on China's only English daily was "two die after H1N1 vaccine", although on closer inspection it appears that one of the two people died 8 hours later of a heart attack, and it was probably just coincidence, while the other case is still being investigated, and no news is available at present. In any case, it does seem that there are serious concerns over the vaccine's safety, and I personally know various other students, both foreign and Chinese, who decided against taking it. The day after the vaccination, a message was passed on to the foreign students who had taken it asking them not to shower for one week! Although there is some idea that one should not shower for a while after a vaccination, I have never heard of not showering for a week. I suppose no one will take the advice too seriously. My roomate, who was vaccinated, has certainly already showered without dropping dead.

Personally I feel that the risk posed by the vaccine is probably tiny, but the risk posed by swine flu is also extremely small at present. After all, 40-60 people dying in a nation of one and a half billion is not a cause for panic, is it? And most of them probably had underlying health conditions anyway. However, if the swine flu gets more widespreadd and takes more lives, I may still change my mind and get vaccinated. Plus, if most of Beijing does get vaccinated, that would also protect me up to a point I suppose.

I am aware of the fact that if I was back in Britain or Italy, I would still not have the chance to be vaccinated. However, with their huge population and limited resources, the Chinese authorities are probably so keen on avoiding a pandemic that they would be quite prepared to start using a vaccine before all the necessary safety checks were made. Of course, vaccines are never completely safe, and new ones less than ever. In other countries, people are also debating whether getting vaccinated is a good idea, as I have discovered by looking through the internet. The issue is confusing, but the for the time being I have decided to wait and see....


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

The point is: is the swine flu just a normal flu, or not?
A person with previous patologies can surely die with a normal viral infection as an healthy one can probably live some kind of complication that could even kill him.

Ji Xiang said...

Ordinary flus actually kill more people than swine flu, but it does seem like swine flu sometimes kills people with no previous health problems. However these cases are extremely rare. It certainly isn't the 1918 pandemic all over again.

Lariko Melnik said...

I saw today in the newspaper that 38 people have died of swine flu in Italy. 38 wouldn't be many in the whole of China, but it's a lot in Italy. If the vaccine becomes available, I think I'll take it.