At least 108 children have died of measles complications at hospitals in the Vietnamese capital this year, more than four times the number previously reported by the government, according to local media reports which said that the death toll from the highly contagious viral disease could be even higher.
Tran Dac Phu, head of the Ministry of Health's Preventive Medicine Department, provided the startling death figure on Tuesday after many experts and social media postings voiced disbelief over a report last week which had said that 25 children had died of measles.
The 108 figure counts only deaths at three hospitals in Hanoi where most of the serious measles cases have been transferred, including the National Pediatric Hospital.
Phu said the real death toll may be higher, as parents of children with “fatal conditions” had taken them home. In addition, those afflicted with measles but never admitted to a hospital were not included in the figure, the Tuoi Tre newspaper said.
National Pediatric Hospital Director Le Thanh Hai said Wednesday that 25 deaths at his hospital were attributed directly to measles, while 78 others had resulted from related complications, according to another report.
The Ministry of Health issued a statement Wednesday defending its earlier figure of 25 deaths, saying that number was more precise, according to the Thanh Nien Daily.
Measles deaths are usually a result of complications from the disease, which is one of the leading causes of death among young children around the world despite the availability of a vaccine, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
In an outbreak that began in Vietnam at the end of last year, some 7,000 cases of measles including both children and adults have been reported so far, Director of the National Hospital of Tropical Diseases Nguyen Van Kinh said Wednesday, according to Vietnam News Agency.
Doctors have called for Vietnam to declare a measles epidemic following the large number of deaths, while officials warned of overcrowding at hospitals that have been flooded with measles patients since February.
Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam, who visited the three hospitals in Hanoi on Tuesday, requested a review of the measles situation in the country following the Ministry of Health’s April 10 report that 25 children had died of measles.
The separate figures given by health officials for measles deaths prompted accusations on Wednesday in local media that officials were trying to downplay the severity of the epidemic, with newspapers running headlines such as, “Number of Measles Deaths Four Times Higher: Is the Ministry of Health Covering It Up?”
Health Minister Nguyen Thi Kim Tien rejected the claims, saying the ministry had reported figures accurately.
“We’re not covering it up. If we were covering something up we would not have announced the number of 108 dead,” she told VietNamNet.
“But we need to be precise in health matters. Of the 108 cases, only 25 cases were due to measles directly, and the rest were due to other diseases [they had] before they contracted measles.”
The current outbreak was similar to Vietnam’s previous outbreak in 2009-2010, but with a lower infection rate and higher fatalities, she said.
Overload of patients
With many of the severe cases sent to the National Pediatric Hospital, there was an overload of measles patients there, she said.
Most of the beds at the National Pediatric Hospital intended for measles patients were shared by four children during Deputy Prime Minister Dam’s visit on Tuesday, according to Tuoi Tre.
Dam said during the visit that he had organized the trip after a doctor from the hospital wrote in a Facebook post about many measles deaths occurring at the facility, according to Thanh Nien.
Pham Nhat An, Vice Director of the National Pediatric Hospital, told VCT News earlier in the week that in his 40 years of experience dealing with measles, he had never seen a situation this extreme in terms of the number of cases and the severity of the complications.
“It is time the Ministry of Health declared an epidemic so that people are aware of the situation and prepare for this contagious disease,” he said.
The Ministry of Health has said it would only declare an epidemic if it detects mutations in the virus, according to Thanh Nien.
The re-emergence of the disease since the previous outbreak in 2009-2010 follows a UNICEF and World Health Organization vaccination campaign that aimed to eliminate measles from Vietnam by 2012.
But the current outbreak has raised concerns that not enough children in the country have been vaccinated.
Tran Tinh Hien, former vice director of Ho Chi Minh Hospital for Tropical Diseases, said the reasons for the outbreak were that there were problems with getting children vaccinated.
“There are some reasons for the outbreak. The first is that before, children only needed to have one dose of vaccination, but now they say children need two doses,” he told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
“The second is that many people worry about the complications from the vaccination, so the number of children who have measles vaccination decreases.”
“This affects the community’s immunity, and that is why children contract measles.”
On April 4, the Ministry of health issued an urgent order urging cities and provinces to step up their efforts in coping with measles outbreak and vaccinating children.
At that time, the outbreak had spread to 59 provinces and cities in the country, it said, saying a main factor in the spread of the disease was that many children had not been properly vaccinated.
In Vietnam, children are recommended to have a first measles vaccination dose at 9 months old and a second after 12 months.
The WHO says two doses of the vaccine to ensure immunity and prevent outbreaks as about
15 percent of vaccinated children fail to develop immunity from the first dose.
Measles is a common childhood viral illness of the paramyxovirus family which carries symptoms of high fever, a runny nose, white spots in the mouth, and a hallmark rash.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.