China’s plans to vaccinate 100 million children and come a step closer to eradicating measles has set off a popular outcry that highlights widening public distrust of the authoritarian government after repeated health scandals.
Since the health ministry announced the WHO-backed measles vaccination plan last week, authorities have been flooded with queries and Internet bulletin boards have been plastered with worried messages. Conspiracy theories saying the vaccines are dangerous have spread by cellphone text messages.
The public skepticism has even been covered by state-run media, which said the lack of trust was about more than vaccines.
“Behind the public’s panic over the rumors is an expression of the citizens’ demands for security and a crisis in confidence,” a columnist wrote in the Chongqing Daily newspaper.
“The lack of trust toward our food and health products was not formed in one day,” the Global Times newspaper said. “Repairing the damage and building credibility will take a very long time. The public health departments need to take immediate action on all fronts.”
In recent years, government agencies have dragged their feet or withheld information about the spread of SARS, bird flu and, last month, an outbreak of cholera. China’s slow response to SARS was widely blamed for causing the outbreak that swept the globe in 2003, and led to deep mistrust both internally and internationally.
Milk products contaminated with industrial chemicals are still found despite mass recalls and several criminal convictions, including executions, after tainted infant formula sickened 300,000 babies and killed at least six two years ago.
Feeding into worries about the measles vaccine were media reports in March that vaccines for encephalitis, hepatitis B and other diseases possibly killed four children and seriously sickened dozens in one province. The health ministry said an investigation showed those vaccines were improperly stored and subsequent illnesses were unrelated. Many remain unconvinced.
Meanwhile, two Chinese vaccine makers recently said they shut operations after rabies vaccines they produced were found to be substandard.
The ministry has tried to calm the public’s anxieties about the 10-day measles immunization drive, which started on Saturday. It has busily issued statements, refuted rumors and held briefings to emphasize the need for the vaccine as well as its safety.
The campaign, likely the world’s largest, targets all children aged eight months to four or 14 years, depending on locality, and is intended to include remote areas, migrant communities and other places where previous vaccination coverage has been spotty.
The publicity is not likely to easily reassure a public increasingly skeptical of reassurances from a government often seen as opaque and unaccountable, especially where public health is involved.
The public push-back marks a turnaround from the mass campaigns in the communist heyday under Mao Zedong (毛澤東) and shows how prosperity and greater access to information are creating a more assertive populace.
Measles is a highly contagious viral disease that can develop into blindness, pneumonia and encephalitis and lead to death, and health experts say China needs an effective vaccination program.
Despite previous vaccination drives, China recorded 52,000 measles cases last year, including 39 deaths. The infection rates mean China is far from meeting its national pledge from 2005 to eradicate measles by 2012.