Chinese families who say they were affected by tainted vaccines have called on the government to take steps to help them, saying they were unable to obtain compensation for their health problems.

Around ten families held a press conference in Beijing with Hong Kong media, despite attempts from authorities to silence them.

According to a 2010 notice issued by the health ministry, only experts recognised by the authorities may diagnose abnormal reactions to vaccines. Medical institutions and individual practitioners must not provide diagnoses.

vaccine scandal
Families who say they were affected in the vaccine scandal meet Hong Kong media in Beijing. Photo: Screenshot/NowTV.

The families said that because of the rule, doctors are unwilling to diagnose whether their illnesses were caused by problematic vaccines, meaning that they are unable to receive help from the government.

“This means we have no other channels to obtain the relevant certification – in reality, many people have still not been able to get any documentation to prove that their symptoms are related to abnormal reactions to vaccines, even though some doctors have privately said to us that the symptoms are very similar,” Ming Pao quoted Tan Hua, a 35 year old woman, as saying.

According to the newspaper, Tan developed a severe rash, twitching, headache, dizziness, and amnesia after receiving a rabies vaccine in 2014. She was later diagnosed with psoriasis, hypoxic brain damage, sudden deafness and epilepsy. Due to her symptoms, Tan is unable to find work despite her MBA from Fudan University. She was forced to use her parents’ meagre pensions to pay for her medical care and basic needs.

The families also called for the government to set up an independent body to evaluate their cases. Since the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention – which is organised by the government – now oversees all work related to vaccines, the centre cannot be an impartial judge of their cases, they said.

Vaccine crackdown

A major scandal revealed in March of last year caused widespread anger in China and rocked public confidence in the healthcare system. It also brought about a crackdown on vaccine makers, wholesalers and buyers. A mother and daughter were arrested in 2015 for selling vaccines that were expired or not properly refrigerated or transported, but the scandal was only revealed a year later after Shandong authorities acknowledged the arrest. An estimated US$88 million (HK$685 million) worth of the vaccines were distributed across 20 provinces since 2011.

The mother Pang Hongwei and her daughter Sun Qi were jailed in January for 19 years and six years respectively. Authorities also dismissed or demoted 357 officials and arrested 202 suspects for their involvement in the scandal.

The World Health Organisation’s China office said in a statement at the time that improperly stored or expired vaccines rarely posed a health risk, apart from the lack of protection from the disease they are intended to protect against.

Media blackout

The families originally invited mainland media outlets to Monday’s press conference, but many of them received phone calls from authorities asking them not to attend, according to RTHK.

vaccine scandal
Dandan, a young child whose parents blame tainted vaccines for his illness. Photo: Screenshot/NowTV.

The press conference did not receive coverage in the mainland.

“We are not trying to make trouble – [we are trying] to use a reasonable and rational method of appeal to express ourselves… we hope the government will provide reasonable compensation to the relevant victims,” Tan said.

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.