by Ngo Thu Phuong
In recent weeks, frauds related to child vaccines have been reported around the country. First the Health Ministry decided to cease the use of Quinvaxem, a five-in-one vaccine used for warding off diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, hepatitis B and meningitis, because it was suspected to have caused several child deaths.
Then a Ha Noi health worker was found to have kept part of a vaccine shot while injecting a child because she could resell the remainder of the highly expensive drug.
As the facts were sinking in, the central province of Phu Yen's Preventive Medicine Centre admitted inoculating 48 children with out-of-date shots. The scandal broke when the situation was exposed by a parent.
The continuing bad news has put millions of parents in a dilemma. They either give their children vaccines that can be as much a danger as a live-safer, but not doing so means to worry for years.
The 27-year-old mother of a five-month-old boy in Ha Noi, Luu Thi Hoa, said the stories upset her family. "My husband and I were so stressed when our parents in their villages kept calling us, pleading for us not to inoculate their grandson for whatever reason," she said.
"But as a mother from a new era armed with a little knowledge, I can't let the opportunity go, otherwise I'll feel guilty if my beloved boy gets sick because he's not protected. Even so, information from social networks still worries me because many stories go unreported in the media."
Anyway, Hoa made her decision. Like many other mothers in the city, she eventually had her son inoculated, but at a prestigious centre where treatment is expensive, the drugs are guaranteed - and there is no double dealing.
A few mothers even more well-off take their children to international hospitals in the capital city. Pham Hoang Ha paid between VND300,000-1 million for each shot for her five-month-old boy, at least three times higher than at public centres. "What's more important than health? Why do we have to risk our lives on poor services?," asked Ha.
She is absolutely right. But millions of poorer women can't afford to make a choice. Consequently, the physical and emotional losses created by vaccine frauds are huge.
First there is the waste of public money as women avoid public centres with bad reputations. Then there are the health impacts on children given less than the prescribed amount of drugs by cheating doctors or nurses. And there's also the fear of out-of-date and useless drugs being used.
This is not alarmist. Right after the news of the vaccine scandals spread, social network users called on the community to stay away from a centre in Nguyen Chi Thanh Street, where a medical worker was caught retaining part of a vaccine shot. Hoa and Ha said they had no faith in the services at that centre or any ward-based medical centres.
"I have learned from experience how different the vaccination procedure is conducted at such centres to those that are private," said Ha.
"For example," she continued, " at private places, the name of my baby is stuck to the bottle of vaccine after the injection. The bottle is kept by the hospital for 15 days in case more is needed. But in many ward clinics and other public places, the bottles are often binned after being used."
A bigger problem emerging from this murkiness is that it is eroding public faith in health workers. This is even more galling considering that the medical profession is based on ancient medical ethics that are a major part of training for health workers.
According to nurse Nguyen Minh Nguyet of the Railway Hospital in Ha Noi, a list of medical ethics issued by the Health Ministry in 1996 are compulsory subjects for both academic and enrolment tests. One edict is that medical workers "not give patients sub-standard medicines or those that are not suitable to the demand and extent of their diseases".
Professor Hoang Thuy Long, former director of the National Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology, has a more humane view on the recent scandals. He says they are "human error" and "unavoidable" given that the wages for low-position medical workers, such as nurses, remains meagre.
This may be true, but the facts are disturbing enough to threaten the success of national vaccination programmes, particularly an expanded scheme that has been hailed both locally and internationally.
The health ministry and heads of medical centres involved in petty frauds that threaten the lives of children must set an example by firing those involved. Deeds not words, thank you! — VNS