Five South Koreans die after getting flu shots, sparking vaccine fears

SEOUL (CNA) – Five people have died after getting flu shots in South Korea in the past week, authorities said, raising concerns over the vaccine’s safety just as the seasonal inoculation programme is expanded to head off potential COVID-19 complications.

Authorities said there was no reason to believe the deaths were linked to the vaccine but an investigation, including post mortems, was underway.

“It makes it hard for us to put out a categorical statement,” Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip told a briefing yesterday about the deaths, which include a 17-year-old boy and a man in his 70s.

Coming just weeks after the rollout of the national vaccine programme was suspended over safety worries, the deaths have dominated headlines in South Korea.

South Korean health authorities said yesterday they would press on with a flu vaccine programme as there was no reason to believe the scheme was linked to a number of reported deaths.

Director of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) Jeong Eun-kyeong told a briefing there would be an investigation into the deaths of the people who had received the shots, but the agency had found no reason to suspend the programme.

Officials last month announced plans to procure 20 per cent more flu vaccines for the winter than the previous year to inoculate 30 million people in a bid to prevent the health system being overloaded by patients with flu and COVID-19 exposure.

However, the start of a free jab programme for around 19 million eligible people was suspended for three weeks after it was discovered that some five million doses, which need to be refrigerated, had been exposed to room temperature while being transported to a medical facility.

Boosting public trust in vaccines has become a major global challenge this year, as some countries rush to approve experimental COVID-19 vaccines before full safety and efficacy studies have been completed.

South Korea’s flu vaccines are supplied by different drugmakers, including LG Chem and Boryung Biopharma, a unit of Boryung Pharm.

A Boryung official said the company was aware of the reported deaths, but had no immediate comment. LG Chem said the company would follow government advice.

A 17-year-old boy who died last Friday was the first death noted by officials. The boy died two days after receiving the flu shot in Incheon, near the capital Seoul.

A man in his 70s, who had Parkinson’s disease and arrhythmia, was the most recent case. He died in Daegu yesterday, a day after receiving the flu vaccine.

A health worker attaches a notice for suspension of influenza vaccination programmes at the entrance of a hospital in Sejong. PHOTO: CNA