Flu vaccinations should be provided free in China to promote immunizations and help protect the public against the virus, a World Health Organization expert said recently.
"Only about 2 percent of people in China receive flu vaccinations, and a major reason is that the vaccines are not free," said Zuo Shuyan, a vaccine researcher at the WHO's China office in Beijing. "We hope the government will include flu vaccines in its national immunization program so that more people are covered by the service."
Unlike Category 1 vaccines - vaccines provided free to the public, such as those for measles, polio and hepatitis B - flu vaccines in China are in Category 2, which means they are optional, and people must pay for them.
However, in a few places in China - including Beijing and Shanghai - local governments provide free flu shots to certain groups of people, such as those 60 or older, as well as primary and middle school students.
China was hit by a severe flu epidemic over the past winter, with 56 reported deaths on the Chinese mainland in January, according to the National Health Commission. Public health experts have said receiving flu vaccines is the best way to prevent illness.
Vaccines that can be effective against four major strains of the flu virus are under development by Chinese companies and may be available on the domestic market later this year, according to the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Vaccines currently in use on the Chinese mainland are effective against three strains.
In 2016, the WHO recommended that China include five vaccines in Category 1, including pneumococcal, rotavirus and flu vaccines, as these are recommended by the WHO for mandatory use in all countries.
Wang Huaqing, chief expert in the immunization program of Chinese CDC, said additional Category 2 vaccines may be provided free by the government in the future, but more feasibility studies and cross-departmental coordination are needed for decision-making.
Since 1978, when China undertook a national immunization program, incidences of many infectious diseases have been greatly reduced, he said, with some diseases fully eradicated.
For example, smallpox was wiped out in China in 1960 as a result of a door-to-door vaccination program that covered the entire population, Wang said - 20 years ahead of the eradication of the disease worldwide.