Fears mount as South Korea probes cause behind 36 people's deaths after flu vaccination

A woman walks past a poster encouraging people to get an influenza vaccine in Seoul, on Oct 23, 2020.
A woman walks past a poster encouraging people to get an influenza vaccine in Seoul, on Oct 23, 2020.PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL - Public concern over the safety of flu shots has grown in South Korea as the authorities reported 36 cases of deaths after vaccination as at 1pm on Friday (Oct 23), putting strain on their efforts to curb a potential "twindemic" of winter flu and the coronavirus.

The country is still grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic, reporting 155 Covid-19 cases on Friday - the highest since Sept 11 and the second day in a row that the number hit triple figures. This brings the total to 25,698.

Health authorities now also have to tackle a deepening fear of the state-administered free flu vaccine programme after two batches of vaccine were found faulty since last month.

South Korea hopes to inoculate some 19 million people for free, especially vulnerable groups such as young children and the elderly, ahead of the annual flu season starting in November when temperatures drop.

No causal link has been found yet between the flu shots and the fatalities so far, and investigations are underway to determine the exact cause of the deaths.

It remains unknown how a 17-year-old boy living in Incheon died last Friday - two days after getting a free flu shot, making him the first case.

South Korea's forensic agency said it has found no direct link between his death and the flu shot.

But it is alarming how the number of similar deaths has since spiked, with 18 alone reported on Thursday, and nine more on Friday.

Most of the fatalities are elderly people with underlying medical conditions.

A woman in her 80s living in the southern port city of Busan died on Friday after being taken to the hospital for breathing difficulties. She had gone to a hospital in the nearby city of Daegu four days ago for treatment of a chronic disease, but was given a flu shot on the doctor's advice.

The police said she probably died of cardiovascular issues, but an autopsy will be performed to confirm if her death is related to the flu vaccine.

In the western city of Jeonju, a man in his 70s was found dead on Thursday, two days after he went for a flu jab. This is the third case in the North Jeolla Province, where Jeonju is the capital city.

Officials are cited as saying that they are looking into potential links between his death and the vaccination.

Seoul has reported at least four such deaths, including a 53-year-old woman who developed breathing difficulties and died on Wednesday, four days after getting vaccinated.

According to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA), four people died after getting a flu vaccine manufactured by SK Biopharmaceuticals - one of 10 companies enrolled in the government programme.

Vaccines manufactured by at least five other companies - Shinsung Pharm, Korea Vaccine, Boryung Pharm, LG Chem and GC Pharma - are also linked to such deaths.

Two batches of flu vaccine have been found faulty - one by Shinsung Pharm, which was wrongly stored at room temperature last month instead of being refrigerated, the other by Korea Vaccine, which was found to contain white particles earlier this month.

The news sent jitters across the country, putting an end to queues that had formed outside hospitals and public health centres as the government urged people to get vaccinated ahead of the flu season.

Still, health authorities are pushing ahead with the nationwide vaccine programme.

KDCA commissioner Jeong Eun-kyeong said at a Parliament hearing on Thursday that "experts concur that the deaths do not appear to be caused by vaccine products or issues with toxicity".

She added that an inquiry must be conducted into a possible causal relationship, and the process will take at least two weeks.

Meanwhile, the Korean Medical Association (KMA) has recommended that the vaccine programme be postponed for one week while awaiting the results of the probe.

As at Oct 18, 9.55 million people have received flu shots, according to the KDCA. About half are sponsored by the government.

Teacher Park Myong-sook, 58, who paid to get a flu shot recently, is now worried about possible side effects.

She urged the government to do a better job of administering the vaccine programme.

"People get flu shots to live, but it is now killing us," she told The Straits Times.

Law firm employee Gina Lee, 30, who has gone for her annual flu vaccination in preparation for winter, is concerned that fear over the recent deaths will stop people from going for vaccination, which will put them at risk when the flu season starts.

"This is now threatening our lives like Covid-19," she said.