Flu Vaccinations Continue as Deaths Spiral

  • By Jung Seok-woo

    October 26, 2020 09:39

    The free seasonal flu vaccination program continues despite the death toll rising to nearly 50.

    Forty-eight people died after being given their flu jabs from Oct. 16 to 24, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said last week. But it added it will continue the flu shots since there is a "very low" probability of a causal link between the vaccinations and deaths.

    To back up its claim, the KDCA provided data on the mortality rate following flu shots in the U.S. in 2013 and reports of deaths among people over 65 after flu vaccinations in Korea last year.

    In the U.S., 11.3 people aged 65-74 per 100,000 population and 23.2 people aged 75 and older died within a week of their flu shots. And in Korea, 1,531 of 6.68 million people over 65 who were given flu vaccines, died within a week between July last year and April this year, or 22.9 people per 100,000 population.

    Jung Jae-hun of Gachon University's Gil Medical Center said, "Unlike in the U.S. and other countries, Koreans used to trust vaccines, but this year, fears have grown."

    Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency chief Jeong Eun-kyeong (center) listens to a question after a press briefing at its headquarters in Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province on Oct. 24. /Yonhap

    Amid concerns over the seasonal flu in times of the coronavirus epidemic, health authorities have been blamed for mishandling this year's flu vaccinations, as 480,000 doses of free vaccines were exposed to room temperature, and white particles were found floating in 615,000 commercially available doses.

    "Nobody has experienced anything like this before and even a teenager has died after flu shots. Health authorities must bear some of the blame for failing to put public fears to rest," he added.

    But Kim Joong-gon of the Seoul Medical Center said at a press conference on Oct. 24. "I don't think it's time to stop or suspend the flu vaccinations since there's no direct evidence that anybody has died because of them."

    There are two possible causal links between vaccinations and deaths. The first one is anaphylactic shock, a sudden and severe allergic reaction that occurs within 24 hours of exposure to a given substance. Health officials "concluded that there is a very low probability of direct link between flu shots and deaths, given the time lapse and the underlying medical conditions many of the victims had," said KDCA chief Jeong Eun-kyeong. "We also confirmed that no severe cases of anaphylactic shock occurred among them."

    The other possibility is Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare neurological disorder in which the body's immune system mistakenly attacks part or its peripheral nervous system.

    "It could occur as an aftereffect or complication of enteritis," Kim said. "In most cases, this kind of disease can be cured completely if properly treated."

    "About 3,000 people in Korea die from flu or complications from it every year," Jeong said. "We recommend that you get your flu shots." But she added there is no hurry since the rate of transmission is lower than in previous years due to social distancing and the flu season is expected to arrive late this year.

    She said the KDCA will now stop announcing the death figures every day and instead publish them two or three times a week.

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