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To quell vaccine worries, health chief makes public display of getting a flu jab

Minister of Health and Welfare Park Neung-hoo received a flu vaccine Tuesday afternoon at a clinic in Sejong. (Ministry of Health and Welfare)
Minister of Health and Welfare Park Neung-hoo received a flu vaccine Tuesday afternoon at a clinic in Sejong. (Ministry of Health and Welfare)

In an attempt to dispel mounting public hesitancy, South Korea’s Minister of Health and Welfare Park Neung-hoo made a public show of getting a flu jab Tuesday afternoon at a clinic in Sejong.

The minister’s display comes after 59 deaths with suspected ties to this year’s batch of flu vaccines had been reported as of Monday.

During Oct. 7’s session of the ongoing parliamentary audit, main opposition People Power Party Rep. Kang Gi-yun suggested the minister and himself receive the vaccine that experienced the cold chain breach to assure the public of its safety.

“I believe the public health authorities have worked to the best of their abilities to survey the situation and concluded that (the heat-exposed vaccines) are safe,” Park said in response. “If my receiving the vaccine is necessary to alleviate the concerns, then I would (receive the vaccine).”

It was not immediately known which flu vaccine the minister had been administered.

Confusion and anxiety are rife among the Korean public over this year’s flu vaccines, which have been riddled with a series of highly unusual mishaps. Earlier this month, more than 1 million doses of the flu vaccine were recalled due either to improper handling or contamination.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency has consistently said the vaccines were not marred in terms of safety or efficacy, and that there was no evidence to link the reported deaths to vaccination.

In Monday’s chief of staff meeting, President Moon Jae-in addressed the controversies surrounding the flu vaccines and asked for people’s trust in the government.

“Trust the experts at our public health agencies,” he said. “Don’t let the excessive anxiety make you miss the vaccination and expose yourself to the risk of catching the flu, which is fairly lethal.”

But such blanket dismissals from the government are not likely to restore people’s confidence in the flu vaccines, according to infectious disease specialist Dr. Kim Woo-joo of Korea University Medical Center in Guro, southern Seoul.

“So far the authorities have limited the investigations to examining the casualties only,” he said, calling for extra scrutiny from the health agencies in charge.

“The Drug Safety Ministry should be looking at the vaccines belonging to the same batch of vaccines as the ones that the deceased persons had received. Not all of the millions of mismanaged or contaminated vaccines have been withdrawn.”

Kim added that the deaths need to be “taken very seriously,” and that a “thorough investigation and transparent communication of its process” will assure people the vaccines are safe.

Onetime director of the former Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and pulmonologist Dr. Jung Ki-suck said the government should relay the findings as promptly as possible.

“A slew of unprecedented errors have plagued this year’s annual influenza vaccination program. People are understandably worried,” he said.

Health experts agree being immunized against the flu will be crucial this winter, as the ongoing pandemic adds a dangerous twist.

But more importantly, a vaccine must be safe, the Korean Medical Association said in a statement Thursday. The statement proposed the vaccination campaign be slowed down while investigations are underway.

Meanwhile, a family of one of the deceased flu vaccine recipients denounced the authorities in an online petition posted Tuesday on the presidential website.

In the post, the brother of a 17-year-old who died roughly 40 hours after he had received a flu shot accused police and the forensic service of determining the case to be a suicide without due investigation.

The high school senior was found dead the morning of Oct. 16 at his home in Incheon. His family claims he had been previously healthy until he received the vaccine in the early afternoon of Oct. 14. The vaccine he was given was distributed by a company accused of mishandling.

“The authorities are trying to make my little brother’s death out to be a case of suicide without investigating properly the connection to the vaccine,” the post said.

According to the post, the forensic examiners told the family there was “zero possibility” of the vaccine having been the cause, and that they found “high levels of sodium nitrate” in his stomach.

The post also accused health officials of giving a briefing on the teen’s death without informing the family in advance.

In a response to The Korea Herald’s inquiry, the KDCA’s spokesperson said the agency has apologized to the family for holding the briefing without notifying them in advance. “But it should also be understood that the agency is obligated to brief on incidence of adverse events,” he said.

By Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)

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