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Fears grow in S. Korea over suspected flu shot deaths

15:07 October 21, 2020

By Joo Kyung-don

SEOUL, Oct. 21 (Yonhap) -- Concerns over the safety of seasonal flu shots are mounting here after more potential flu shot fatalities were reported Wednesday, putting health authorities in hot water amid its push to curb the "twindemic."

So far, five people have died after receiving flu vaccines under the state-led free flu shot scheme this year, although no evidence has been found to show those deaths are linked to flu shots.

As of Tuesday, 8.3 million people had received free flu shots under the state-run program.

According to health authorities, a 68-year-old man on the country's southern resort island of Jeju and a 78-year-old man in Daegu have died after getting the shots, raising the number of fatalities to five.

A citizen receives a free flu shot at a medical center in Seoul on Oct. 19, 2020. (Yonhap)

Health officials said they are investigating whether there is any causality between their deaths and flu vaccines, noting that both men had underlying diseases.

Fears over flu vaccines emerged last Friday after a 17-year-old boy in the western port city of Incheon died two days after receiving a flu shot.

Similar fatalities were reported from a 77-year-old woman in Gochang, North Jeolla Province, and from a 82-year-old man in Daejeon on Tuesday. Both received flu shots Monday.

"We feel regret over people's concerns over free flu shots and are looking into the situation in a grave manner," said Vice Health Minister Kim Ganglip at a press briefing. "But first, we must find out the exact cause of the recent deaths."

According to health authorities, the deceased people got flu vaccines manufactured or distributed by Korea Vaccine, Boryung Biopharma, LG Chem or Shinsung Pharm.

However, others who were administered those vaccines on the same day have yet to have any abnormal symptoms, health authorities said, although one woman in her 70s has been in a coma after receiving a flu shot in Daejeon.

Experts said it is too early to determine whether flu vaccinations should be stopped because no link between the recent deaths and flu vaccines has been founded.

"No drugs or vaccines are 100 percent safe, but we should know that flu vaccines have been around for more than 70 years, since 1945," said Ki Mo-ran, an epidemiology professor at the National Cancer Center. "We would have not used flu vaccines if there were so many deaths connected with flu shots."

Citizens wait in line to receive a free flu shot at a medical center in Seoul on Oct. 19, 2020. (Yonhap)

According to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA), there has been only one death case that authorities found a connection to a flu shot. In 2009, a 65-year-old woman was diagnosed with Miller Fisher syndrome, a rare nerve disease, after receiving a flu shot and died a year later.

Prior to the suspected flu shot deaths, many people already expressed concerns over flu vaccinations after some of the inactivated flu vaccines, handled by Shinsung Pharm, were found to have been exposed to room temperatures during shipping last month. It recalled the mishandled products later.

Earlier this month, Seoul's drug safety watchdog ordered Korea Vaccine to recall 615,000 doses of flu vaccines after confirming white particles were found in the vaccines, though it believed that the efficacy and safety of vaccines were not compromised.

"Any vaccine that is suspicious should be recalled to prevent bigger troubles," said Kim Woo-joo, a professor of infectious medicine at Korea University Guro Hospital in Seoul. "At a time like this, the government should stick to its principles, but the problem is that people are worried."

kdon@yna.co.kr
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