South Korean officials on Thursday refused to halt attempts at a seasonal influenza vaccine, despite calls for a halt, including an appeal from a key medical team after at least 13 of those vaccinated had died.
Health officials said there was no direct link between deaths and vaccinations.
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) says at least 11 of the 13 dead are part of a free vaccination campaign for 19 million young people and senior citizens, including a 17-year-old boy.
“The death toll has risen, but our team is less likely to die from shots,” agency director Jiang Yun-kyong told parliament.
South Korea has called the fifth flu vaccine “twindemic” this year or ordered those with the flu to avoid the possibility of developing coronavirus problems and high-burden hospitals during the winter.
“I understand and regret that people are worried about the vaccine,” said Health Minister Park Nung-hoo, who confirmed that the free program would go ahead.
“We are looking into the reasons, but will thoroughly re-examine the whole process involving various government agencies from production to distribution.”
Vaccine providers include domestic companies GC Pharma, SK Bioscience, Korea Vaccine and Boriang Biopharma, a unit of Boriang Farm, along with Sanofi of France.
They supply both free programs and paid services aimed at vaccinating 30 million of a population of 52 million.
Of the 13 people who died, five received products from SK Bioscience, three from Boryung, two from GC Pharma and the Korean vaccine, and one from Sanofi.
While four domestic companies declined to comment, Sanofi did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
It was not immediately clear if any of the vaccines made in South Korea were exported, or even those supplied by Sanofi were being used elsewhere.
The Medical Association calls for a break
The Korean Medical Association, an effective group of doctors, has now called on the government to stop all vaccination programs, reduce public concerns and ensure that vaccines are safe.
Kim Chong-in, the leader of the main opposition People’s Power Party, wanted to stop the program until the cause of death could be determined.
But health officials said there was no direct link to the vaccines in the preliminary investigation into the six deaths and no toxic substances were found.
On Thursday KDCA data revealed that at least seven of the nine people investigated had underlying conditions.
The free program has been controversial since its launch last month. As needed, the experiment was discontinued for three weeks after it was found that five million doses other than refrigerated were kept at room temperature.
Officials say 8.3 million people have been vaccinated since the program resumed on Oct. 13, with about 350 cases of adverse reactions.
The special payment program allows buyers from large companies that make free vaccines and others.
South Korea had the highest number of deaths related to seasonal flu vaccines in 2005, according to the Yonhap news agency. Comparisons with previous years have been tough as more people are getting vaccinated this year, officials said.
Kim Myung-sook, 65, is among the growing number of South Koreans who have decided to pay for the vaccine of their choice, despite being eligible for a free dose.
“Although only a few people have died so far, this number is growing and it bothers me,” she told Reuters in the capital, Seoul. “I’ll take the shot elsewhere and pay for it.”