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[Editorial] Flu vaccine fear

Reports of potential flu vaccine deaths increase; cause must be confirmed quickly

With more deaths reported to be possibly connected to flu vaccinations, health authorities said that a direct connection between the deaths and the flu vaccines has not been confirmed. The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said the current situation is not so serious as to suspend flu vaccinations.

Nevertheless, concerns about the safety of seasonal flu shots are not diminishing, as reports of potential flu shot fatalities are increasing.

The number of deaths suspected of being linked to flu vaccination this year rose to 19 as of 3 p.m. Thursday, just six days after the first reported case in which a high school student died after a flu vaccination in Incheon on Oct. 16. On Wednesday alone, six had died after receiving flu shots.

The unusual increase in reports of potential flu vaccine fatalities may have been ascribable to a heightened awareness of abnormal responses to flu vaccines after the healthy high school teenager without preexisting conditions died after getting a free flu shot.

Each year from 2017 to 2019, two deaths were reported as possibly connected to flu shots. However, a causal link was not found. The number of death reports possibly connected with flu vaccinations this year is more than five times that for the past three years. The connection has not been confirmed yet except for one case -- a man living in Daegu was confirmed to have died from underlying diseases, not from the flu vaccination.

As of Tuesday, the number of people who complained of unusual responses to flu vaccinations rose to 431, much higher than 131 in 2018 and 177 in 2019.

People began to worry about the safety of the flu vaccines after some batches were found to have been delivered at room temperature rather than cold, and white particles were detected in some vaccines.

The incidents revealed health authorities’ sloppy oversight of flu vaccine distribution and also sparked public anxiety.

When boxes of vaccines to be delivered to hospitals and public health centers were found to have been piled up outdoors in improper temperatures last month, health authorities retrieved 480,000 doses and said no one had been injected with the vaccines in question. But over 3,000 people reportedly received flu shots with the mishandle vaccines. Flu vaccines are supposed to be kept between 2 and 8 degrees Celsius. Any storage temperature above this range can compromise their efficacy.

When white particles were detected in some vaccines, authorities said they collected 615,000 doses. But it turned out that about 18,000 people already received flu shots with the vaccines that should have been retrieved. According to experts, white particles, which are aggregates of antigen proteins within vaccines, cause no problems in medical effects and safety.

The agency disclosed the first potential flu shot fatality, three days after it occurred, and the type of related vaccine two days later. It found out about the mishandling through a citizen’s report.

In this situation, potential flu vaccine deaths were reported successively. Public concerns about the safety of flu shots cannot but grow. Authorities must be more cautious. They must share related information transparently and swiftly.

Experts regard the chance of a flu vaccination causing death as very slim. According to the agency, 25 flu shot deaths were reported from 2009 to 2019, but a definite conclusion as to whether these deaths were caused by the flu shot was reached in only one case -- a 65-year-old woman who died in February 2010 after getting a flu shot in October 2009.

The government must brace for any possibility when it comes to the health and safety of the public. If even a single death is confirmed to have been caused by a certain flu vaccine, it must stop using it. If the reported deaths were not found to be connected with vaccines, it should try to dispel unfounded public fears.

The most pressing job for health authorities is to confirm quickly if there is a connection between the deaths and flu vaccine in the reported fatalities. People can get flu shots without hesitation if anxiety disappears.

At the same time, they must recheck the safety of vaccines and the distribution system. They should also share information rapidly.