BEIJING, Jan. 9 (Xinhua) -- Panic triggered by vaccine-related deaths in China led to a 30 percent drop in the hepatitis B vaccination rate in December, with experts warning of rising incidence of the infection, People's Daily reported on Thursday.
At least 17 deaths have been reported since November after infants were vaccinated with hepatitis B shots produced by different companies, raising fears over infant hepatitis B vaccination in the country.
Food and drug regulators launched an investigation and ordered the country's three biggest hepatitis B vaccine makers to suspend production.
Investigation results showed last week that vaccines have not been associated with nine of the infant deaths.
Some 20 percent of parents are reluctant to let their children receive a hepatitis B vaccination, and nearly 30 percent showed hesitation, the newspaper cited a survey conducted by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention as saying.
The center surveyed 701 children's parents, according to the report.
"It's unavoidable that a tiny portion of infants displayed adverse reactions after receiving hepatitis B vaccines because of physical differences," Yu Jingjin, head of the disease control bureau under the National Health and Family Planning Commission, was quoted as saying in the report.
Yu added that the ratio of infants showing adverse reactions in China has not gone beyond the World Health Organization's (WHO) standard.
"If the hepatitis B vaccination rate continues to drop, more Chinese infants are likely to be infected with the virus," Jia Jidong, a hepatopathy expert with the Beijing Friendship Hospital of the Capital Medical University, said in the report.
Jia said there has not been any treatment to eradicate hepatitis B until now.
"In general, the hepatitis B vaccine is known to be safe and effective, and it is the best way to prevent infection," according to the WHO.
Dr. Bernhard Schwartlander, WHO Representative in China, said in December that the health gains of the vaccination program are enormous and efforts should be directed towards the continuation of the program while ensuring the safety of the vaccines.
All Chinese infants receive the first dose of the hepatitis B vaccine within 24 hours of birth, with two additional doses at one month and six months respectively.
The hepatitis B vaccine program has been responsible for the reduction of the prevalence of hepatitis B to less that 1 percent among children under five years old, down from over 9 percent in the pre-vaccine era, according to the WHO.
Hepatitis B is a potentially life-threatening liver infection. The virus can cause chronic liver disease and infection, and increases the risk of death from cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer.
WHO estimated that vaccination prevents the deaths of two to three million people annually.