flu shot
© Reuters
Flu shot administered in a hospital in Seoul.
Numbers plummet with public concern following a number of deaths.
South Korean officials are scrambling to contain widespread public panic sparked by news reports of deaths thought to be linked to influenza vaccines, with President Moon Jae-in urging calm and saying any link was merely coincidental.

Over the past two weeks, 59 post-vaccination deaths have been reported, mostly involving those in their 60s or older with pre-existing health conditions.

Alarmist news headlines since the first death was reported on October 16 have deterred many people from getting vaccinated, and the Korea Medical Association recommended a temporary suspension of the flu shots.

But investigations and autopsies of 46 of the cases have so far found little evidence that the deaths were associated with the vaccine injections, authorities said. The remaining 13 deaths have not yet been examined.

"It's been confirmed that the deaths were not directly linked to flu vaccinations," Moon said on Monday.

He appealed to members of the public to "put trust in the conclusions" reached by health authorities and experts, calling for the expansion of the flu vaccination programme to avoid a "twin pandemic" of the flu and Covid-19 this winter.

In a bid to calm simmering public concerns, Health Minister Park Neung-hoo, 64, will have a vaccine injection on Tuesday, as all South Koreans aged 62 or older are entitled to free state-financed flu shots.

On Sunday, Singapore temporarily halted the use of two flu vaccines. Although no deaths associated with influenza vaccination have been reported there, the health ministry said the decision to halt the use of SKYCellflu Quadrivalent and VaxigripTetra was precautionary following the South Korean cases.

In Taiwan, authorities also had to calm fears after a man in Taichung was hospitalised and fell into a coma about 10 days after receiving a flu vaccine. He was later diagnosed with a rare neurological disorder and health officials said it was unlikely that it was caused by the vaccine.

"I agree with the government view that the deaths and vaccination are just coincidental" said Emeritus Professor Lee Hoan-jong.

Moon's statement came as hospital workers reported a drop in the number of people coming in for vaccinations.

"Instead of having a flu injection and getting killed, I'd rather wear a mask all the time to fend off both flu and the Covid-19 as well," one online commenter said.

But others said they would overcome their anxieties to get vaccinated. "I am diabetic and asthmatic. So I was hesitant to receive a flu shot but I decided to believe in what the government says," a woman in her mid-60s, Lee Mi-hwa, told a TV news programme.

Health experts said the public panic was also sparked by news headlines last month that 480,000 doses of flu vaccines were momentarily exposed to room temperature. The vaccines were all recalled but this lapse heightened distrust in vaccines.

"This incident prepared the public to get alarmed by the slightest suggestion that the deaths might be linked to flu shots, although the deaths turned out to have nothing to do with the injections," said physician Ahn Byoung-hai.

Lee Jae-Gab at Hallym University Medical Center said the increased attention about flu vaccines led to more reports of post-vaccination deaths which would have gone unreported at other times.
"Things that happen every year are happening now and things do not increase or decrease due to vaccinations. Flu vaccines are much safer than other kinds of vaccines and more than 10 million people get flu shots every year in this country [of 51 million people] alone."
The panic over vaccines is somewhat unprecedented in South Korea, where public awareness for the need for vaccinations is relatively high, with 70 per cent of citizens receiving flu vaccines every year and 98 per cent of children being vaccinated for measles.

The anti-vaccination movement is largely ignored in this country, especially after a herbalist and prominent anti-vaxxer was convicted for breaching medical laws, had her license cancelled, and received a suspended jail sentence and 30 million won (US$26,000) fine in 2019.

To further the argument that the vaccinations were not directly linked to the deaths, medical experts pointed out that no particular batch of vaccine was disproportionately found among the cases, and the deceased had received various batches manufactured by six local pharmaceutical companies and a French firm.

Lot numbers assigned to the batches to control distribution and trace manufacturing lines were all varied among the flu shots that were received by the dead people, they noted.

"We can't say the deaths are due to contamination by any particular batch of vaccine or a vaccination programme error," said Emeritus Professor Lee Hoan-jong at the Seoul National University Children's Hospital.

"I agree with the government view that the deaths and vaccination are just coincidental."
About the Author:
Park Chan-kyong is a South Korean journalist who has worked for the Agence France-Presse Seoul bureau for 35 years. He is now working for the South China Morning Post. He studied political science at Korea University and economics at the Yonsei University Graduate School.