June 13, 2011
Immunisation-associated problems have come to the fore yet again. A Delhi-based report gave the shocking news that the number of children who die soon after being administered vaccine shots more than doubled in the last three years compared with the previous seven years. The information was provided by the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in response to an application under the Right to Information Act, 2005 from Dr. K.V. Babu, a public health activist and a Central Council member of the Indian Medical Association (IMA).
The finding is significant inasmuch as the sudden spurt in the number of vaccine-related deaths has happened during a three-year period (2008 to 2010) when three reputed public sector vaccine-manufacturing institutes functioning at Kasauli (Himachal Pradesh), and Coonoor and Chennai (both in Tamil Nadu) had been forced to suspend vaccine production. The three units accounted for over 70 per cent of the vaccines needed for the country’s Universal Immunisation Programme (UIP). The Central government withdrew the orders of suspension of production in the three units only in 2010.
The public health establishment ordered the closure of the three public sector undertakings on the ground that the World Health Organisation (WHO) had faulted these units “for not adhering to the compliance of Good Medical Practice (cGMP).” Experts averred that cGMP was not related to the quality of the vaccines produced in the three units; it was rather about the infrastructure such as staff strength and air-conditioners. This could have been complied with had the Central government pumped in enough funds to the three units engaged in the production of vital vaccines. Despite the units’ repeated appeals, the financial assistance was not forthcoming. On the other hand, the Health Ministry was keen to promote private ventures in the field of vaccine production and supplies.
Severe shortage of vaccine
Significantly, an earlier (2010) RTI response from the Union Health Ministry to Dr. Babu revealed that owing to severe shortage of vaccines 522 children died during the years 2008 and 2009 in the several Central government-run hospitals across the country, which account for only 15 per cent of the total government and other public hospitals. The period also saw a steep rise in the prices of vaccines, which threw the immunisation programme out of gear. The revelations had only proved that the fears of the public health and human rights activists, the leaders of the Left parties and a section of the media, both print and broadcast, had been genuine. The media warned the government of the severe shortage of vaccines if it went ahead with stoppage of production in the three vaccine units. Apart from this, the people’s response to the UIP started dwindling and vaccine prices touched a new high.
The media’s detailed, relentless, and responsible coverage of the government’s harassment of and tirade against the scientists, researchers and employees of the three vaccine units and the employees’ mobilisation of public support have paid dividends. The need for continued media watch cannot be underestimated, if the UIP benefits should reach all children.