Flu vaccines: as demand rises amid Covid-19 fears, Hong Kong’s private doctors already struggling with shortages


HONG KONG, Oct 20 (SCMP): About 200 private doctors in Hong Kong are already grappling with flu vaccine shortages amid “an unprecedented demand” before the winter influenza season and a predicted fourth wave of Covid-19 infections, the medical profession has warned.

Dr Henry Yeung Chiu-fat, president of the Hong Kong Doctors Union, expressed concern about the limited supply on Monday, three days before the start of the city government’s free vaccination programme, which primarily targets schoolchildren and the elderly.

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A total of 878,000 doses of influenza vaccine have been procured by the government this year, according to the Department of Health. But a government insider said those stocks were already destined for priority groups, urging private doctors to order vaccines directly from manufacturers.

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The citywide shortage of flu shots has been in evidence for more than a week. Among 15 private clinics in various districts contacted by the Post on Monday, all said they were out of flu vaccine and turning residents away. The charges for the shots ranged from HK$300 (US$39) to HK$700.

A staff member at UMP Medical Centre said the Causeway Bay clinic had a waiting list of 95 residents.

“We’ve placed orders from suppliers a month ago, but have no idea when we will be restocked,” she said.

Yeung told a radio programme that the number of residents hoping to get flu shots this year had tripled from 2019, leading many private practices to run out of vaccine. Member doctors reported at least 30,000 more doses would be needed to meet the unprecedented demand, he said.

“Some people used to go to government outpatient clinics to get the flu vaccine, but this year, they changed to private clinics, because some of them might not want to go to public hospitals amid the Covid-19 pandemic,” he said. “There are also residents who have never had a flu vaccine, and hope to get an injection this year.”

Dr Gabriel Choi Kin, president of the Hong Kong Medical Association, also confirmed the serious shortage, saying a limited number of doses from three major overseas suppliers would arrive in November at the earliest.

The demand for primary school students and the elderly has reached more than 800,000 doses of vaccines, and [the city’s supply] will definitely not be enough [for everyone]
Professor Ho Pak-leung

From Thursday, the government will begin providing free vaccinations for schoolchildren at 450 primary schools as well as 760 kindergartens and childcare centres that have signed up.

All residents aged 65 years or above are also eligible for a free vaccination at public clinics, or a HK$240 subsidy if they get the shots at private facilities.

According to the Centre for Health Protection, 1.2 million Hong Kong residents in high-risk groups received free or subsidised flu vaccinations under government programmes between last winter and this August.

University of Hong Kong microbiologist Professor Ho Pak-leung said that even though the number of flu doses procured by the government was the highest in the past four years, the supply would still fail to meet demand.

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“Referring to the winter flu peak period last year, the demand for primary school students and the elderly reached more than 800,000 doses of vaccines, and that will definitely not be enough to meet demand this year,” he said.

He suggested the government allow private clinics now facing restocking difficulties to procure doses from health authorities to meet the urgent demand.

Yeung and Choi, who represent the two doctors’ group, said they planned to convey similar requests during a Monday evening meeting with Secretary for Health Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee.

Ann Chiang Lai-wan, a pro-Beijing lawmaker from the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, meanwhile, urged the government to liaise with vaccine manufacturers directly to ensure an adequate supply.

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A spokesman for the Centre for Health Protection said all residents other than children younger than six months were recommended to take the jab to protect themselves ahead of the influenza season in January. The lone exception is for those with existing conditions that make it inadvisable.

The Department of Health said it would monitor stocks of vaccines amid rising global demand and closely liaise with suppliers.

Global researchers have been looking for possible correlations between influenza and Covid-19.

A recent study from Public Health England showed the risk of death doubled for those who catch flu and coronavirus together, while another study conducted by the Cleveland Clinic, a non-profit academic medical centre in the United States, found receiving a flu vaccine had no influence on whether an individual would contract Covid-19. - South China Morning Post

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