Vietnam police asked to probe 3 babies' post-vaccination deaths

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Unable to establish the cause of deaths for three newborns that died less than an hour after receiving Hepatitis B vaccinations on July 20, the Ministry of Health is seeking help from the Ministry of Public Security. PHOTO: TUOI TRE

Vietnam's Ministry of Health has asked for help from the Ministry of Public Security in its investigation into three newborns who died July 20 in Quang Tri Province after receiving Hepatitis B (HepB) vaccinations.

Initially, the health ministry believed the babies went into reactive shock after receiving the HepB shots, but said after their investigation and autopsies conducted by local police, the cause of the babies' deaths remains unclear.

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A senior official from the Ministry of Public Security's Anti-Crime Police Division confirmed with Thanh Nien Sunday that the ministry had received the request from the health ministry, and that it would assemble a team to look into the matter.

Another senior official from the ministry said police would launch a formal investigation into the case if they detect any signs of criminal negligence.

The health ministry has been criticized by the public for shifting the responsibility to the Ministry of Public Security.

"No one else can give help or do a better job than them [health authorities] in handling public health issues," said a retired official from Quang Tri Province's Dong Ha Town.

Speaking to Thanh Nien, many residents in Huong Hoa District where the babies died expressed their disappointment with the health ministry's inability to explain the deaths on its own.

The three babies born at Huong Hoa General Hospital died less than one hour after receiving their first Hepatitis B 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.

The three additional shots are administered when babies are two, three, and four months old.

The health ministry sent a team to coordinate with the provincial health department and local police on July 21.

A day later, the health agencies 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, before excluding the first one the following day since they said the babies were born healthy. 

The Drug Administration of Vietnam under the health ministry that same day suspended the use of shots from the two batches, which were produced by the Company for Vaccine and Biological No. 1 last September and are not set to expire until July 2015.

Quang Tri Police have sent the samples from the vials in question, as well as blood, lung, brain, liver, kidney and heart samples from the deceased babies to relevant authorities for further testing. 

Following the deaths, many parents have said they would wait for the investigation's conclusions before having their babies vaccinated or until their babies are a bit older.

Some said they would not have their babies vaccinated, while others said they would pay for imported vaccines.

But so far, the health ministry and the World Health Organization in Vietnam are maintaining that the first HepB shot be given to all newborns within 24 hours.

According to data from the National Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology, about 10 percent of Vietnamese pregnant women have Hepatitis B.

The rate of transmission is reduced by 80-95 percent for newborns who receive their first vaccination within 24 hours.

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