The Uncertainty of Flu Vaccines in Korea

There has been a rise in deaths of citizens who recently received the flu vaccine. It is unlikely that the vaccine was the cause of their death, but what is the right course of action of vaccine-providers to ease public concerns?

With each spike in Coronavirus cases, hospitals have been on the verge of overflowing, without enough equipment or rooms for their patients. Now that the Flu Season is underway, South Korean officials are concerned over whether hospitals can handle the influx of flu patients on top of COVID-19 patients. In order to prevent an overload of patients in hospitals, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) has started a free flu vaccine program for which 19 million people are eligible (BBC News). However, concerns have been growing over the safety of these vaccines as several deaths possibly linked to vaccination were recorded. As of Friday, October 23rd, at least 48 South Korean citizens have died after receiving a flu vaccine (KBS World Radio). The highest recorded number of deaths that occurred after flu vaccination was six deaths in 2005. However, the number of people being vaccinated in 2020 is much higher, which could be the reason for the sudden spike in deaths (The Korea Times). In addition to the deaths, according to Jung Eun-kyeong, the KDCA Chief, there have been 353 cases of abnormal reactions linked to vaccinations this year. 

Although most of the deaths that occurred were among elderly citizens aged 70 or older, a few of which having underlying health conditions, a 17 year old boy died two days after receiving a flu shot. His vaccine was one of around 5 million doses that had been accidentally exposed to room-temperature. This batch of vaccines was re-collected and tested for quality control, however, the testers found no irregularities or toxic substances in the vaccines. The death of such a young person sparked fears amongst parents who were planning on getting their children vaccination as well. Lim Yi-young, the mother of a four year old son, stated that she was “too frightened to get him the vaccine” after hearing of the recent deaths (The Korea Times).

The KDCA has decided to continue with the vaccination program, assuring the public that there is no definite correlation between the casualties and the flu vaccinations. KDCA officials say that it would be difficult to suspend the program at such a critical time, emphasizing the number of deaths caused by the flu itself each year. However, the KDCA also states that the vaccination will be suspended immediately if any issues are found with the vaccines. On the other hand, the Korean Medical Association (KMA) has a contrasting stance, stating that the government should put the program on hold until the cause of the deaths have been confirmed. According to KDCA Commissioner Jeong Eun-kyeong, confirming the cause of death by conducting autopsies on the bodies would take around two weeks to complete. KMA President, Choi Dae-zip, states that the government should pause the program in order to identify the “cause of the recent deaths and ease the people’s concerns” (The Korea Times). 

Although the beginning of the flu season is a crucial time and the influx of patients could overwhelm hospitals across South Korea, reassuring the public and ensuring public safety is also extremely important. As Jeong Eun-kyeong stated, completing the autopsies and tests would take around two weeks to complete. Following the advice of the KMA, the KDCA should take the time to re-collect the released vaccines and conduct one more quality-control test on all of the vaccines as well as confirm the causes of the deaths. This will ease public panic, allowing more parents and families to feel comfortable getting vaccinated and ultimately having a positive impact on flu cases if completed in a timely manner. 

– Michelle Lee ‘22

Featured Image: Sam Moqadam/Unsplash

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