Ministry roundly jabbed over vaccine

Medical fraternity in an uproar over government’s flawed and fatal Rubella treatment programme
By Nadia Fazlulhaq, Sarah Kellapatha and David Stevens

The Ministry of Health and its National Immunisation Programme have come under furious attack from health sector groups demanding stringent action over medical negligence and the issue of sub-standard drugs.

The uproar follows the second death reported this year in connection with the administering of the Rubella vaccine. Both victims were students. Twelve-year-old Asanthi Wasana, of Wariyapola, died on October 12, and Peshala Hansini, of St. Thomas’s Girls School, Matara, died in March. Both students had suffered an allergic reaction after receiving the vaccine.

Asanthi Wasana, 12

Meanwhile, 27 students in Matara and at least 11 children at the same school in Dambulla fell ill after being vaccinated, while two students in Jaffna had to be hospitalised after the vaccination. For the second time this year the Rubella Immunisation Programme has been suspended.

Dr. B. T. Gunasekare, secretary of the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA), said the Rubella medical scandal demanded an independent investigation by foreign medical experts.

“We don’t have an independent body to check on the quality of the drugs we import, or to ensure that the drug manufacturers we buy from have a clean record and are not known for selling expired stocks or low-quality drugs. We must turn to foreign experts to determine the real cause of the deaths,” Dr. Gunasekera said. “The Ministry of Health oversees drug evaluation, drug registering and drug imports. It is important to have a balanced inquiry.”

Dr. Gunasekera said the remaining stock of the Rubella vaccine should be laboratory tested. “When the first death occurred, the Health Ministry failed to remove the Rubella vaccine batch No. ZA 37, which carried a November 2009 expiry date. The vaccine was manufactured in India. The vaccines had not been laboratory tested. There was an issue of toxicity. Although the brand has been approved by the World Health Organisation, no samples were sent for safety tests,” he said.

Dr. Gunasekare said the s Rubella vaccine used carried an expiry date but no date of manufacture.
Meanwhile, the Health Services Trade Union Alliance said students with a history of allergic reactions should have first undergone a test at a state hospital before being given the vaccine. “The Public Health Services Department should immediately put in place a testing procedure,” said Saman Ratnapriya, president of the Health Services Trade Union Alliance.

A senior official at the Ministry of Health said disciplinary action would be taken if medical negligence was proved, and that all vials of the Rubella vaccine would be withdrawn if the vaccine was found to be defective. “WHO experts said the first death was mainly the result of medical negligence. A committee appointed by the ministry is looking into the matter,” the official said.

Dr. Virginie Mallawarachchi, a consultant epidemiologist at the Health Ministry, said the Rubella vaccine protects against a variety of medical problems, including multiple birth defects, blindness, hearing loss, heart problems and mental retardation.

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