Concerns over seasonal flu shots grew further on Friday as deaths after vaccinations swelled to over 30, with health experts split over whether to go ahead with a state-led free shot program amid a potential "twindemic" of the new coronavirus and the flu.
Although no connection has been confirmed between the recent fatalities and vaccines, public fears have been mounting in South Korea over flu shots.
Since the first suspected death from a flu shot was reported last Friday, 36 have died as of 1 p.m. Friday, up nine from Thursday's tally at 4 p.m., according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).
The country's forensic agency said it has found no direct links between a 17-year-old boy's death, the first suspected death case after flu vaccination, and a flu shot.
Despite growing flu shot concerns, South Korea's health authorities have reaffirmed that the state-initiated seasonal flu shot program will continue, citing no direct link between flu shots and deaths.
"The reported tally just counts deaths after vaccinations, and it does not mean the deaths were caused by flu shots," KDCA said in a statement.
Some municipalities have recently ordered medical institutions in their region to temporarily halt flu vaccinations following recent death cases. However, KDCA said municipal officials should not make such decisions without consulting with health authorities.
The country has been pushing for a free state flu shot scheme to inoculate some 19 million people, including teenagers and senior citizens.
KDCA said a thorough investigation is under way to find the exact cause of the recent deaths, as well as epidemiological investigations, including autopsies, into nine cases.
The free vaccination program -- which was expanded this year in an effort to prevent the potential "twindemic" during the winter -- was joined by five major drugmakers, including GC Pharma and Ilyang Pharmaceutical Co.
Health experts agree that people should take flu shots before influenza season arrives here since more deaths can occur from serious complications triggered by the flu, such as pneumonia.
About 3,000 deaths related to flu complications are reported annually in South Korea.
Generally, flu season arrives between end-November and December. Considering that flu vaccines cause antibodies to develop in the body about two weeks after vaccination, experts here recommend people get flu shots by mid-November.
However, experts are divided on whether people should take flu shots "immediately" at this moment when more suspected deaths are being reported nationwide in a relatively short period of time.
The Korean Medical Association (KMA) said the government should consider postponing the nationwide flu shot program for about a week, but the Korean Vaccine Society insisted that inoculations need to be continued since no causal links between vaccines and the recent deaths have been confirmed.
"We agree that flu vaccinations should continue," said Min Yang-ki, a KMA official. "We are not calling the government to completely halt the vaccination, but to temporarily suspend it for about one week to find out the exact cause."
"It's not a logical approach to stop vaccinations just because there were deaths," said Kim Woo-joo, a professor of infectious medicine at Korea University Guro Hospital in Seoul.
"Those in high-risk groups, such as the elderly, have increasing possibility of death when flu symptoms aggravate, so they should get vaccinated. However, we should make a comfortable and safe environment for them to receive flu shots," he said.
The government earlier said it appears that the vaccine itself has no problem because many others who received the same vaccine that the deceased had been inoculated with showed no major abnormal responses.
But with concerns rising over the safety of flu vaccines, KDCA held a meeting on Friday afternoon to discuss the issue. Health officials are expected to announce the result of the meeting later in the day. (Yonhap)