By Shan Juan
BEIJING, Dec. 28 (Xinhuanet) -- China's vaccines are produced and regulated in accordance with international standards, and the hepatitis B vaccination program is vital in safeguarding children against the illness, according to the World Health Organization.
Bernhard Schwartlander, China representative for the international health body, made these points during an interview with China Daily on Thursday.
"Given that the hepatitis B virus is still around, it's important for babies to get vaccinated," he said.
The WHO Beijing office met with the National Health and Family Planning Commission on Thursday to discuss the latest developments surrounding incidents in which 11 newborns have died after being inoculated against hepatitis B.
According to Schwartlander, it's difficult to establish a causal link between the vaccines and the babies' deaths since nearly all infants in China receive the vaccine as part of a very successful vaccination program.
Statistics from the commission showed that more than 16 million babies were born in China last year, and 90 percent of them were covered by the program that offers hepatitis B vaccinations free of charge.
"Without the immunization coverage, there might be a rapid increase of the disease," Schwartlander warned.
China initiated the hepatitis B vaccinations in 2002 under a nationwide immunization program that began in 1978 and aims to protect children from preventable diseases.
The vaccines, which guard against more than 10 diseases, are all manufactured domestically, said Zhao Kai, a vaccine expert and academician with the Chinese Academy of Engineering.
Schwartlander called the program "very successful", saying that hepatitis B prevalence among Chinese children under the age of 5 is now below 1 percent.
But he conceded that some risks from the vaccination cannot be avoided.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hepatitis B is a very safe vaccine, and most recipients have no problems with it. Severe problems are extremely rare. Dangerous allergic reactions are believed to occur about once in 1.1 million doses.
"Medical education is important for the public to fully understand the benefit and risk of the vaccine, thus enabling them to make the right choice," Schwartlander said.
It's important for governments to keep alert to problem vaccines and take preemptive measures, such as suspending the products during investigations, he said. But "vaccines produced by other registered manufacturers should be trusted," he added.
Health authorities in Gansu said on Friday they are investigating a new hepatitis B vaccine-related death, the 11th such infant death since November. In the latest case, a baby in Lanzhou died after receiving the vaccination manufactured by the Dalian Hissen Bio-Pharm Inc.
Earlier, in Loudi, Hunan province, a 2-month-old boy died on Wednesday after receiving a hepatitis B shot produced in Beijing. Most of the other deaths occurred after vaccinations from products made in Shenzhen by the BioKangtai biotech firm. The use of all BioKangtai hepatitis B vaccines has been suspended nationwide.
(Source: China Daily)