Friday, October 16, 2009

[KOREA] Gov't Must Investigate Safety of Flu Vaccine:

Five people have died since vaccinations for the seasonal flu began on Oct. 5, and two senior citizens, aged 77 and 91, suffered strokes and are now in critical condition after being vaccinated on Monday.

Vaccines inject weakened or dead pathogens into the body, enabling it to produce antibodies and thereby develop immunity against the infection. But even severely weakened pathogens can be harmful to seniors and sick people whose immune systems are too compromised to fight back. During a swine flu outbreak in the U.S. in 1976, some 40 million people were vaccinated. Among them, around 500 developed Guillain-Barre syndrome, an autoimmune disorder affecting the peripheral nervous system, and 25 died from respiratory impairments.

Of the 20 or so existing vaccines, including those for smallpox and the measles, flu vaccines are considered the safest. Each year, some 300 million to 400 million people receive flu shots, but deaths are rare. Health authorities here say the recent fatalities do not seem to have been caused by the vaccine, since the five who died were suffering from heart disease, high blood pressure and other ailments. Six people died in 2005 after getting flu shots, and three people died last year. None of those cases was proven to have been linked to defective vaccines, health authorities say.

But after hearing that five people have died and two have fallen gravely ill less than 10 days after the injections began, people are naturally wondering if they should get their flu shots or not. Some community health centers, including one in northern Ulsan, have stopped flu vaccinations altogether, while more and more seniors are opting not to get them. In order to limit the chances of side effects, health authorities should start questioning senior citizens and deny vaccinations to those suffering from heart problems, high blood pressure or other ailments. There should also be a reservation system so that seniors do not have to wait for their shots in long lines out in the cold.

Most importantly, health authorities need to immediately investigate the causes of the fatalities. Starting next month, 13 million people will be vaccinated against the H1N1 flu virus. Japan halted flu vaccinations in the 1990s following concerns over side effects, and subsequently some 800 children died from the flu. The concerns over the vaccine must be investigated and addressed, lest we end up suffering a similar tragedy. Health authorities must devote every effort to finding out whether there are any problems with the vaccine.

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