Are vaccines safe? Doubts persist in Hong Kong despite reassurances

For several decades, the Hong Kong government has relied on citywide vaccination programmes to keep infectious diseases in check.

The Childhood Immunisation Programme protects children against illnesses including hepatitis B, measles and tetanus, while the Government Vaccination Programme offers free seasonal flu and pneumococcal vaccines to the elderly.

Hong Kong’s vaccination programmes are similar to those provided in developed countries all over the world such as Britain, where routine vaccinations are offered on the National Health Service free of charge.

Vaccines work by introducing small amounts of weakened or killed pathogens into the human body, which trigger the immune system into producing the right chemicals to destroy them. When the same disease strikes in future, the body will in theory be able to recognise and combat it more effectively.

However, there is some controversy surrounding the safety of vaccines. This mostly stems from a now-discredited 1998 British medical study which suggested a link between the MMR vaccine and autism in children.

Despite numerous later studies proving the findings were not true and even fraudulent, the study continues to impact how some parents view vaccinations for their children. Even US President Donald Trump claimed vaccines were linked to child autism during his presidential election campaign.

Hong Kong-based naturopath Graeme Bradshaw believes that children coming from families with a medical history of autoimmune disease may be more susceptible to side effects from vaccines.

“In these cases delaying the infants’ vaccine series by a few months ... is more valid,” he says.

The steadily growing popularity of natural and alternative medicine in recent years has also fuelled safety concerns surrounding vaccines.

“As far as epidemic prevention is concerned, I wonder why the Hong Kong government only considers Western medicine but never considers other safer approaches such as homoeopathy or Chinese herbal medicine,” says vegan activist and environmental campaigner Chapman Chen.

However, Hong Kong paediatrician Dr Simon Wong insists that modern vaccines are perfectly safe and that serious side effects are rare – a finding backed up by numerous scientific studies.

“You are much more likely to be harmed by the illnesses themselves than by the side effects of the vaccine,” Wong says.

“In order to be classed as safe, [vaccines] need to go through so many trials. The vaccines we’re giving routinely these days have all been around for a very, very long time.”

He adds that for most healthy, normal individuals there will be no contraindications which mean the vaccine might cause harm.

“For [anti-vaccine campaigners], it’s what you believe rather than a genuine medical contraindication,” Wong says.

“Prevention is always better than treatment, so if you can do something to stop [your child] being sick then that is the best way forward.”

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