Federal and state health officials are baffled by a mysterious and rare illness that seems to target children, causing paralysis.
As of Tuesday, 62 cases of what doctors are calling acute flaccid myelitis have been confirmed in 22 states. Sixty-five suspected cases are being investigated.
“There is a lot we don’t know about AFM and I am frustrated that despite all of our efforts, we haven’t been able to identify the cause of this mystery illness,” Nancy Messonnier, a top official at the Centers for Disease Control, said Tuesday.
What is known about the illness is that more than 90 percent of the confirmed cases are in children 18 years old or younger. The average age of patients is 4.
Victims generally suffer from muscle weakness and some paralysis of the face, neck, back, arms and legs. The paralysis sets in about a week after the children have come down with fever and respiratory illness.
There is no specific treatment, and most of the victims recover. But the long-term effects are still unknown.
Messonnier called it a “pretty dramatic disease.”
Health experts have ruled out some causes, including poliovirus and West Nile virus.
But what is particularly confounding doctors is that the number of cases spikes only every other year — with larger numbers in 2014, 2016 and this year — and fewer cases in 2015 and 2017.
A recent vaccine scandal in eastern China’s Jiangsu province, where 145 children were confirmed to have received expired polio vaccinations, has once again exposed the country’s poor vaccine management and lack of systematic regulatory oversight, a former Chinese health official said.
To eradicate such lapses, Chen Bingzhong, ex-head of China’s Health Education Research Institute, calls for a nationwide probe, in which, third-party stakeholders such as parents, lawyers or reporters should take part to ensure transparency.
“There should first be a thorough probe into the cause of the Jiangsu case, which serves as another wake-up call. But who should launch the investigation? Local health departments alone won’t work because they are the ones who cause the problem and should be held responsible. An [unbiased] third party has to be involved,” Chen said.
Expired vaccine probe
Jiangsu police, on Monday, began an investigation after the local government in the province’s Jinhu County concluded that “only 145 children” were orally administered with polio vaccines that expired on December 11, 2018.
And so far a total of 17 officials have been punished, including the deputy head of Jinhu County.
The local government has also promised check-ups on all affected children.
Tao Lina, a Shanghai-based vaccine expert, blamed the county’s online registration system, which she said failed to alert doctors about expired vaccines or registered the wrong expiration date, according to a Global Times report.
But many worried parents are skeptical of the official findings and suspect a larger-scale cover-up.
The case came to light on Jan 7 when a parent — a retired hospital worker — discovered that oral vaccine given to her grandkid was nearly a month out of date, according to local media reports.
Many parents, who picked up the news on social media, followed suit to check batch numbers on their children’s vaccination history and found that expired vaccines include not only polio vaccines, but also diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis (DPT), hepatitis B and varicella.
And the problem dates back to a decade ago, which is further fueling suspicion that the majority of the county’s 20,000 children under the age of 14 may have been exposed to faulty vaccines. The case in Jinhu is the latest in a string of similar scandals in China.
Late last week, hundreds of anxious parents gathered in front of Jinhu government offices, demanding answers.
Video footage that has gone viral on the Internet showed repeated scuffles between angry crowds, besieged government officials and squads of mob police, which continued into the night.
Three parents ended up being arrested and local residents have expressed difficulty in uploading videos of the protests to social media.
On Weibo, the equivalent of Twitter in China, some urged parents in Jinhu to stay calm, but many more shared their anger.
“The government’s credibility is overdrawn and the people’s tolerance is being put to the test,” one Weibo user said.
“To be honest, our regulators are all façade with little function,” another complained.
Parents elsewhere complained of governments of all levels’ inaction to address the country’s vaccine problems including appropriate compensations to those who suffer adverse effects.
A father from Fujian province surnamed Lin told VOA that the local government there has done nothing to help this teenaged son, who experienced severe adverse effects from vaccines at the age of three.
“They [the Fujian government] keep patronizing me and passing the buck,” he said.
“Two to three years ago, my kid was identified to be suffering adverse reactions from vaccines, which is extremely rare. If the government can help deal with it, we have nothing to complain. But it’s been ten years, the government hasn’t even tried to take up a [responsible] stance, which I find very hard to accept. My child is now in a [brain-damaged] state,” he added.
A series of vaccine scandals in China including years of illegal sales of improperly-refrigerated vaccines and locally-produced substandard vaccines, which respectively came to light in March and July last year, have seriously undermined public confidence in spite of repeated calls for tightened regulation.
Vaccine management law
Wang Yuedan, deputy director of Peking University’s immunology department, however, insisted that the Jiangsu case is an isolated misconduct of local medical staff and the upcoming passage of a law on vaccine management will help address regulatory loopholes.
To tighten supervision on vaccines, Beijing released a draft Vaccine Management Law this month and is seeking public opinions until next month.
“I believe, once the law takes effect, there will be harsher punishments [on lawbreakers] to prevent such lapses. Among past expired vaccine cases, the punishment imposed on officials [in Jinhu] this time have been the harshest-ever,” he said.
But Chen disagreed.
He asked why many people from local medical staff to regulators in Jiangsu, who are responsible of tracking vaccine flows, have failed to sound alarm bells over expired vaccines?
That shows a systematic regulatory negligence — serious flaws that legal revisions alone won’t cure if few profit-driven lawbreakers and officials who helped cover up the crisis have been held responsible, he said, adding a nationwide probe will find parents in Jiangsu aren’t alone.
Regardless of how harsh the punishments will be, what’s more important is no more faulty vaccines used on their children, many parents said. (VOA)