BEIJING, April 24 (Xinhua) -- China's health watchdog is worried that a drop in vaccination coverage driven by vaccine safety concerns will offset its achievements in limiting infectious diseases such as hepatitis B and measles.
The number of children vaccinated for hepatitis B in 10 Chinese regions declined by 30 percent at the end of last year, Li Quanle, an official with the National Health and Family Planning Commission's disease control and prevention bureau, warned ahead of World Immunization Week beginning on Friday.
Vaccination coverage for other diseases also declined by 15 percent on average, said Li, citing a survey conducted after a series of deaths in December was blamed on vaccines.
The 17 deaths were initially suspected to be caused by unqualified hepatitis B vaccines manufactured by Shenzhen-based BioKangtai and use of the company's vaccines were halted. Such assumptions were later ruled out, however.
The figures show how hard it is for China, a country which has successfully protected more than 80 million children from being infected with hepatitis B, to win back parents' confidence after scares like this.
Li said now the rate of vaccinations is back on the rise, but at a very slow pace. If the situation continues, according to the official, an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 children will be susceptible to infectious diseases.
The World Health Organization (WHO) also expressed "concern" about the situation in an written interview with Xinhua on Thursday.
"This is an especially tragic situation since China has made remarkable progress accelerating the control of hepatitis B through timely vaccination with safe and effective hepatitis B vaccines," said WHO China's Dr. Lance Rodewald, team leader for its Expanded Program on Immunization.
Saying he is confident in the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines used in China, Rodewald cited China's meeting international standards such as high-quality clinical trials testing vaccines, licensing, production, batch testing and vaccine safety monitoring.
Experts have been warning the decline in the vaccination rate may be a harbinger of more future diseases, which will burden families and the nation with costs that will be hard to bear.
Gao Lidong, vice director of a provincial disease control and prevention center in central China's Hunan Province, where suspected adverse reactions to vaccines have been reported, said it is very dangerous for so many parents to mindlessly reject vaccinations for their children.
"We have contained the incidence rates of adverse effects to hepatitis B vaccines within 1.1 for every one million vaccines, which is a level set by the WHO," said Gao.
The hepatitis B virus can cause chronic liver disease and infection, and increases the risk of death from cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer.
Official figures shows that China has 93 million carriers of hepatitis B. Each year, 280,000 people in the country die from diseases related to the virus.
In 1992, China added hepatitis B to a national immunization program, which has been covered by public funding. Other diseases such as polio, measles, hepatitis A are also included in the program.
The WHO also said it is normal for Chinese parents to have questions, and it is important "to work with parents to understand their questions and then to address their concerns with accurate information."