KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
We all know about China's rapid development, and right now we're going to look at what that development means for public health, specifically vaccinations. China has made big advances in inoculating much of its population against preventable diseases, but a scandal has highlighted the need for important reforms. It involves the illegal resale of vaccines. NPR's Anthony Kuhn brings us the story from Beijing.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: As I meet 4-and-a-half-year-old Yin Jiayue, she hands me a gift she made.
YIN JIAYUE: (Foreign language spoken).
KUHN: "Look," she says. "I made a fan for you." Yin is smiling, wearing a red dress. She's got sneakers with Nike logos on her feet, and on her legs are plastic braces. Her mom, Dong Xiaoxin has carried her from her rural home in North China to protest outside the offices of China's national health authorities a few blocks from where I'm interviewing her.
Dong says that not long after her daughter was given a vaccine to prevent polio, her daughter contracted polio. She doesn't know if the vaccine caused the disease or just failed to prevent it. But in any case, she blames the medicine.
DONG XIAOXIN: (Through interpreter) We had no idea that vaccines could produce this kind of result. We thought that any vaccination given by the state had to be a good thing. We were completely unprepared.
KUHN: Dong says she did her civic duty by having her daughter vaccinated, and now the government must take care of them.
DONG: (Through interpreter) When immunizations kill or cripple children, the state needs to provide us parents with some sort of safeguard. Only then can parents feel assured and fully trust the government.
KUHN: Parents' concerns have grown since last month when police uncovered a nationwide racket based in Eastern Shandong province. It allegedly resold millions of vaccines without proper refrigeration. Authorities have detained hundreds of suspects. It's a major setback to an otherwise well-regarded program.
LANCE RODEWALD: The Chinese' expanded program on immunization is one of the best programs in the world.
KUHN: Dr. Lance Rodewald heads the World Health Organization's immunization team in China. He credits China's vaccination program with major accomplishments, such as eliminating polio and tetanus in China.
RODEWALD: But what this scandal has shown is a problem in the distribution and in the management of these private sector vaccines.
KUHN: In China, the government gives kids polio and tetanus vaccines for free. Parents have to pay for other shots, such as for rabies, themselves. Rodewald points out that vaccines seldom cause children to get sick, and no illnesses have been definitively linked to the scandal. The problem, he says, is...
RODEWALD: If parents lose confidence in the program, they may start to withhold vaccines from their children, and that's a setup for disease coming back.
KUHN: Rodewald notes that the government has announced a number of reforms. Perhaps most importantly, in the future, all vaccines will be distributed through government channels.
RODEWALD: If there's a silver lining to it, it comes at a very high price because we don't want to see parents lose confidence in this program that's trying very hard to help keep their children healthy. But sometimes it takes a crisis for changes to happen.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in foreign language).
KUHN: After I spoke to them, Dong Xiaoxin and some of the parents went to protest outside the health authority offices, calling for the government to take more responsibility. They uploaded this video to Chinese social media. Police later detained many of them. One parent remarked to me that instead of paying police to suppress them, the government could save a lot of money and trouble by just compensating them. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.
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