Probe into post-vaccination deaths ongoing, police say

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Nguyen Dinh Dao, 35, (2nd, L) cries as he stands outside the morgue while an autopsy is performed on his newborn son at the Huong Hoa General Hospital in Quang Tri Province. Dao's son and two other newborns died on July 20 after they were given Hepatitis B vaccine shots. Photo by Nguyen Phuc

Police in the north-central province of Quang Tri Friday said they have yet to conclude investigations into the headline-grabbing deaths of three local newborns after they received Hepatitis B (HepB) vaccine shots on July 20.

The statement came after some newspapers quoted sources as saying that the authorities have "initially concluded" that the babies died at Huong Hoa General Hospital after receiving oxytocin, which helps stimulate uterine contractions for a baby delivery, rather than the HepB vaccine.

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According to the reports, a power cut at the hospital forced the vaccination staff to use their cell phone light to look for the HepB vaccine, which was preserved in the same place as oxytocin, leading to the fatal mistake.

However, Huong Hoa General Hospital leaders have said the investigators have not told them that wrong medication led to the babies' deaths.

Nguyen Van Thien, the hospital's deputy director, confirmed to Thanh Nien Friday that there was a power cut, but rejected the information that the two types of medications were preserved in the same place.

Thien said HepB vaccine is always put in the refrigerator set at 2-8 degrees Centigrade, but oxytocin is not.

He said HepB vaccine is contained in vials with rubber stoppers, while oxytocin is in a glass tubes, adding that the different forms of containers would not allow his hospital staff to make such serious mistakes.

Asked about the potential risk that the babies could have faced if they had received oxytocin, he said he could not give the answer as it is an unprecedented case and no research has been done into this question.

Colonel Le Quang Cong, head of Quang Tri Police Department's social crimes investigation division, said Friday he could not confirm the news reports, as the investigation is still ongoing.

"I don't know where they [the newspapers] got the information from," he said, adding that the provincial police department will provide the information to the media as soon as they have reached official conclusions.

Major-General Le Cong Dung, director, and Colonel Tran Duc Viet, deputy director of the Quang Tri Police Department, gave similar responses the same day.

Tran Van Thanh, director of Quang Tri Health Department, said that day he has not received the conclusions reported in the media.

Nguyen Dac Phu, deputy head of the General Department of Preventive Medicine, also said he only knew of the conclusion on the babies' deaths via the newspapers, not the investigators.

He said there has been several cases of vaccination with wrong medications, not vaccine, like Yemen in 1997 when 21 babies were killed by insulin injections. In Vietnam, the accident, if confirmed, would be the first-ever one in the country.

Tran Thi Ha, of Huong Hoa's Khe Sanh Town, one of the three mothers who lost their babies, said: "Whatever the reason really is, I hope that the case will  be tried and those involved will be punished so that no one else will suffer such similar tragedy."

The babies born at Huong Hoa General Hospital died less than one hour after receiving their first HepB shots, which came from two vaccine batches containing 600,000 shots distributed nationwide.

Standard protocol in Vietnam is to give newborns their first in a series of HepB shots within 24 hours of birth to prevent the virus from being transmitted to them from infected mothers.

A total of four HepB shots are currently administered to each Vietnamese baby for free under the National Extended Program on Immunization, with three additional shots administered when the baby is two, three and four months old.

The deaths provoked concerns among parents and experts about the local-made HepB vaccine and the practice of administering the vaccination 24 hours after birth, but both the health ministry and the World Health Organization in Vietnam have maintained that the first HepB shot be given to all newborns within 24 hours.

The health agencies believe the three babies went into reactive shock after receiving the HepB shots, and came up with three potential scenarios which would account for the babies' deaths: undiagnosed congenital diseases; defective vaccinations; or the way the vaccinations were preserved or administered by the hospital.

The first one was soon excluded as they said the babies were born healthy.

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