(ATTN: ADDS more info in 11th para)
SEOUL, Oct. 24 (Yonhap) — South Korea’s health authorities said Saturday they will continue a free flu shots program despite dozens of recent deaths after vaccinations, as they found no links between vaccines and fatalities.
The number of deaths following flu shots jumped to 48 as of 1 p.m., up from 36 the previous day, after the first suspected death was reported on Oct. 16, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA). About 80 percent of the dead were in their 70s and 80s.
“We are not in the stage of considering suspending the state-led free shot program, as interim autopsy results of 20 deceased people showed no direct link between their deaths and vaccines,” KDCA Director Jeong Eun-kyeong said in a briefing.
The health authorities are closely monitoring any possible links between vaccines and deaths, given a total of 1,154 people have reported side effects after getting the shots this year, Jeong said.
The authorities will work with experts to find out what exactly caused the deaths of people who received the flu shots, she said.
The director called on medical institutions to make a thorough diagnosis in advance before injecting senior citizens with shots.
The country has been pushing for a free state flu shot scheme to inoculate around 19 million people, including teenagers and senior citizens.
The free vaccination program — which was expanded this year in an effort to prevent the potential “twindemic” of COVID-19 and flu during winter — was joined by five major drugmakers, including GC Pharma and Ilyang Pharmaceutical Co.
Health experts agree that people should take flu shots before influenza season arrives here since more deaths could occur from serious complications triggered by the flu, such as pneumonia.
About 3,000 deaths related to flu complications are reported annually in South Korea.
Last year, the number of those aged 65 or older who died within one week of their flu vaccine inoculations was tallied at 1,500, the health authorities said.
Generally, flu season arrives between end-November and December. Considering that flu vaccines cause antibodies to develop in the body about two weeks after vaccination, experts here recommend people get flu shots by mid-November.
However, experts are divided on whether people should take flu shots “immediately” at this moment when more suspected deaths are being reported nationwide in a relatively short period of time.
Health organizations are divided on whether to continue the vaccination in coming weeks.
The Korean Medical Association (KMA) recommended the government consider postponing the nationwide flu shot program for about a week, but the Korean Vaccine Society insisted that inoculations need to be continued since no causal links between vaccines and the recent deaths have been confirmed.