China’s parents can’t even trust the country’s vaccines

At risk.
At risk.
Image: Reuters/China Photos
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Ten years ago this month, the biggest food-safety scandal ever in China started to come to light as parents slowly discovered that their children might be drinking poisonous milk powder. Now, parents are fretting over the safety of the country’s vaccines.

China is currently grappling with two major vaccine scandals—the first involving drugs used to inoculate babies against diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus (DPT), the other relating to rabies vaccines made by the country’s second-largest producer of that vaccine.

In a country where many have lost faith in the domestic food supply, Chinese premier Li Keqiang was stern in his response (link in Chinese), accusing the companies behind the vaccines of “crossing a moral baseline,” adding the perpetrators owe the Chinese people a thorough apology. He called for a government investigation into the country’s vaccine industry.

In early July, China’s state drug administrator found that Changchun Changsheng Biotechnology, a vaccine maker based in Jilin province, had produced some 3.5 million shots of Vero-cell rabies vaccines that failed to meet the country’s safety standard. A week later, the same firm was fined (link in Chinese) 3 million yuan ($440,000) for making some 250,000 vaccines used to combat DPT, which came nine months after authorities discovered faulty products (link in Chinese).

This isn’t the country’s first vaccine scandal. Two years earlier, police arrested 37 people in connection to sales of expired and improperly stored vaccines for children that affected 18 Chinese cities.

Michael Anti, a veteran Chinese journalist, said the current scandal reminded him of one in 2004 (paywall) when some babies in central China’s Anhui province were found to have abnormally big heads and later showed developmental problems after consuming infant formula that was low on protein. He posted a photo on Twitter of one such baby that he saw then, and said, “Since that day, I learned that Chinese people are really willing to hurt their own children to make money.”

Social-media users expressed anger and disillusionment at the country’s seeming lack of regard for children’s safety—a problem that has recurred over and over since the 2008 tainted-milk scandal. ”If someone wants to have children, she should work hard and go abroad to give birth. Don’t let children grow up in this land. Otherwise, you’ll be sorry to you children. There was toxic milk powder, then the RYB kindergarten scandal, now toxic vaccines, what’s next?!” one user wrote on (link in Chinese) social media site Weibo.

The RYB scandal refers to allegations of child abuse that broke out last year at an upscale, private kindergarten in Beijing, where parents found needle marks on their children, and later found that they were unable to discuss the incident due to government censorship. A teacher with the school was prosecuted in connection with the case.

Ziyi Tang contributed reporting.