Younten Tshedup 

The health ministry will continue with its plan to provide seasonal influenza (flu) vaccines to the general population.

Additional vaccines for the second phase of the mass vaccination programme are set to arrive next week.

The decision to vaccinate the entire population stands even after the recent incident in South Korea. Over the past two weeks, 59 post-vaccination deaths were reported in Korea, mostly involving those in their 60s or older with pre-existing medical conditions.

However, the Korean authorities earlier this week confirmed that the deaths had no direct links to the flu vaccines.

Following the incident, Singapore temporarily suspended the use of the two flu shots.

Supporting the decision to continue the vaccination programme, Health Minister Dechen Wangmo said that side effects of a vaccine were apparent immediately after the vaccination.

Lyonpo said that to observe the side effects of any vaccination programme, an adverse reaction reporting system was already in place. “So far, through the system we have had only one reported case where the person, an elderly man, had some dizziness. He however, has now recovered.”

She said that except for the lone case, there were no other adverse reactions reported since the beginning of the vaccination programme on October 7.

So far, the ministry has administered flu vaccines to 56,953 people.

Lyonpo said that although the flu vaccine in use was produced in South Korea, it was not the vaccine that was recalled following the deaths. Bhutan uses the brand GC Flu Multi-Injection produced by Green Cross Republic in South Korea. South Korea manufactures around seven different kinds of flu vaccines.

The GC Flu Multi-Injection vaccine is a WHO prequalified vaccine.

“The procurement of vaccines is such that the country cannot directly buy vaccines from manufactures,” Lyonpo said. The procurement is carried out through UNICEF, which in turn procures only those vaccines pre-qualified by the WHO. “However, like any other vaccines, there could be some adverse reactions which is why as part of our routine monitoring system, we are keeping a close eye on it.”

Health experts say that it is not the time to suspend a flu vaccination programme since the vaccination is very crucial this year considering the Covid-19 pandemic.

With growing evidence suggesting that flu vaccines could provide certain protection against Covid-19, the government plans to vaccinate the entire population in two phases. The first phase began on October 7 for the high-risk groups. The second phase for the general population will commence from November.

Protection here primarily means reducing the strain on the health care system and hospital resources in the event of the second wave of the pandemic.

Lyonpo said that simultaneous outbreaks of seasonal flu and Covid-19 would put considerable pressure on the country’s health care system. “There would be a double burden on the health care system as hospital visitation would shoot up,” she said, adding that many countries were now opting to make flu vaccination readily available for the population.

Experts say that in the absence of a vaccine for Covid-19, preventing people from getting flu, which could possibly turn into severe cases, could be avoided with the introduction of the flu vaccines.

The mass vaccination programme would cost the government more than Nu 120 million.