In the wake of it all, a lot of Beijing parents are asking themselves: What now? Should I proceed with my child’s vaccinations?
First of all, to frame the debate, we don’t intend to address the bigger issue of whether you should vaccinate at all. However you stand on that hot-button issue, we are presuming that those of you reading this support vaccinations as routine healthcare. Those that choose not to vaccinate as a practice we are assuming would not be interested in the details below of how to do so safely in Beijing.
What We Know So Far
First of all, news reports indicate that the scandal is limited to the improper handling of legitimate vaccines, and not a case of counterfeit or fake vaccines.
The issue at hand is that unlicensed middle men have become involved in the vaccine supply chain, acquiring vaccines from legitimate state-sanctioned medical supply companies and then selling them on to hospitals in China.
The crux of the issue is how these middle men have been handling the storage of vaccines during the logistics process.
Most vaccines require proper refrigeration "from the time they are manufactured until they are administered," according to the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
I’ve Already Gotten a Vaccine, is My Child at Risk?
Poorly kept vaccines are unlikely to have turned virulent, "spoil" or otherwise cause disease in your child, according to both the World Health Organization and the CDC. However, the CDC states, improper handling of vaccines can decrease the potency and reduce the effectiveness of a vaccine.
That means that your child could then be susceptible to the very disease they were vaccinated against, should he or she be exposed to that disease into the future.
Those concerned about the effectiveness of specific vaccines received in the past can arrange to have their child tested for antibodies to the disease vaccinated against. If the vaccine was indeed effective, your child should have antibodies to that particular disease present in their system.
How Vaccines are Regulated in China
All vaccines in China must be ordered from vendors which are approved by the China Center for Disease Control. Any hospital that wishes to offer vaccination services must purchase from an approved vendor. However, each hospital is free to choose a supplier from within the spectrum of approved vendors.
That means every hospital could potentially be getting their vaccines from a different vendor; however if the regulatory system works the way it should, all will have come from government-approved and regulated channels.
Should I Go Ahead Then With Vaccines in Beijing?
The question then becomes: what is your next step as a parent if your child is due for a vaccination?
First of all, anything that we can offer here as a media outlet is only a suggestion, and we strongly suggest you consult directly with a trusted medical doctor or hospital and don’t take your advice solely from this blog.
Having stated that, we believe the wisest course of action is to take responsibility for informing yourself of the risks associated with getting vaccinations in China, and only work with trusted hospitals and doctors.
Here are some common-sense measures, which we would hope all parents would follow anyhow:
Ask your hospital about their vaccine sourcing. What we recommend is that you talk to your doctor or hospital and asked them specifically about the source of their vaccinations. Many hospitals manage their supply chain carefully and are very detailed about sourcing and on-site management of their vaccine supply. If they are unable to provide you with details of their supply chain, reconsider your choice.
Don’t accept a vaccine that comes from a source you can’t verify. Most international-standard hospitals in Beijing will offer the patient the opportunity to examine the packaging of the vaccination itself before it is opened in the examination room. Do not accept a vaccine that comes pre-drawn in a needle with the packaging discarded.
Consider a delay in your child’s immunization schedule if practical. Many vaccines can be postponed to a later time in a child’s life; a common-sense approach may be to wait to see how this news story develops.
At the very least a delay of a few months may make little difference to your child’s health and give regulators time to dig deeper and clear the system of likely ineffective vaccines.
Ultimately this scandal raises quite a few unanswered questions. First and foremost, anyone who has lived in Beijing through the 2008 Melamine scandal or SARS in 2004 can attest there’s plenty of examples of health crises that have ballooned despite regulations designed to prevent such occurrences.
And given that many industries are rife with counterfeit products in China, a parent would not be out of order to second-guess something like this.
It comes back down to a question of how much you trust government agencies such as the Chinese Center for Disease Control to truly prevent things like this from happening.
While well-managed hospitals can guarantee that they work only with trusted suppliers and that vaccines in their hands are handled according to strict protocols, there remains the possibility that even approved suppliers may not be giving the vaccines the proper handling they need to preserve their effectiveness.
Few hospitals we contacted for this story were willing to talk on the record regarding vaccines; however some have posted official statements on their websites. United Family Hospital has this statement on their website detailing how they source and handle vaccines and reassuring the community that there has "never been an untoward adverse clinical event associated with the administration of any vaccine at any UFH facility" throughout China.