Two dozen deaths after vaccines scare people away

A succession of deaths following flu shots — 28 reported as of Thursday — is fanning fears over the safety of Korean influenza vaccinations, though the government insists a link remains unproven.

A 74-year-old man in Incheon became one of the latest to perish under unexplained circumstances, authorities in the city said, less than two days after being administered with a flu shot at a local clinic.

Over a dozen others, most of advanced ages and with pre-existing conditions, died in similar fashion in locations around the country within days of receiving flu vaccines of different types from different manufacturers. Eighteen deaths were reported on Thursday alone, and more may have emerged after deadline.

Though they too have been taken aback by the mushrooming fatalities, health authorities remain reluctant to make a causal connection with influenza vaccinations and roll back a program providing free shots to the most vulnerable.

“Experts concur that the deaths do not appear to be caused by vaccine products or issues with toxicity,” said Jeong Eun-kyeong, commissioner of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA), at a parliamentary hearing Thursday.

“There needs to be an inquiry into a possible causal relationship through an examination of medical records and autopsies. We expect the verification to take at least two weeks,” she added.

Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency Commissioner Jeong Eun-kyeong speaks on the mysterious deaths linked to flu vaccinations at a parliamentary hearing on Thursday. [YONHAP]
Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency Commissioner Jeong Eun-kyeong speaks on the mysterious deaths linked to flu vaccinations at a parliamentary hearing on Thursday. [YONHAP]

Such assurances have failed to allay mounting fears among a public already anxious over a resurgence of Covid-19 cases in recent months.

Local clinics across the country have been bombarded by phone calls from concerned citizens inquiring about the safety of vaccines and symptoms of complications that could arise from shots.

At hospitals and medical centers, where peopled had lined up to get shots just the day before, queues were short or nonexistent.

Last month, health authorities detected that some vaccines distributed by Shinsung Pharm were left at room temperature as they were being shipped to medical facilities. The vaccines were supposed to be kept at temperatures between 2 to 8 degrees Celsius (35.6 to 46.4 degrees Fahrenheit) to sustain their potency.

Shinsung Pharm was in charge of delivering vaccines for about 5 million people covered by the government-run program. After the incident, the government temporarily halted its free vaccine program for children and the elderly and recalled the batches distributed by the company.

Another 615,000 doses of flu shots were recalled by manufacturer Korea Vaccine earlier this month after authorities confirmed white particles were found in vaccines in a public health center in Yeongdeok County in North Gyeongsang.

Shinsung Pharm manufactured the product taken by the first possible vaccine-related victim this month — a 17-year-old high schooler who died last Friday, just two days after receiving his shot. The teen was said to have told his family he felt “tired,” according to an ongoing investigation into the death.

Korea Vaccine produced shots linked to the deaths of at least two of the victims, both from Daejeon.

But at least four other drug companies were responsible for the vaccines tied to the other deaths: Boryung Pharm, LG Chem, GC Pharma and SK Biopharmaceuticals. Ten companies are taking part in the government’s influenza vaccination program, though vaccines taken by the victims were from separate batches with different identification numbers.

KDCA Commissioner Jeong also ruled out the theory that some victims may have been allergic to chicken eggs used to produce some of the vaccine types, noting deaths also occurred among those who had taken vaccines made with mammalian cells.

“Hazardous toxins are avoided during vaccine production, which is inspected by the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety, so it would be a major problem and unacceptable for there to be a problem in the process,” Jeong said.

“If there are problems with the products, [production] should stop immediately.”

Jeong also ruled out the theory that the vaccines induced in some victims anaphylactic shock, an allergic reaction that may cause rashes or inflammations across the body within 30 minutes of contact. Examinations of two victims showed that anaphylactic shock was not the cause of death, she added.

Autopsies are ongoing on most of the deceased, and officials believe conclusive determinations on their deaths will be available only after two weeks.

Until then, the official view is that continued vaccinations are necessary to prevent thousands of fatalities from influenza, which usually spreads during the cold season.

“The elderly and others at high risk are vulnerable to complications resulting from influenza, which could worsen pre-existing conditions and result in death,” Jeong said. “The safe way is to vaccinate.”

October 22, 2020

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