Vietnamese authorities have come under fire for their management of a deadly measles outbreak, with netizens calling for the resignation of the embattled health minister and suggesting authorities are covering up a potential epidemic.
Fatalities of children infected with the disease reached at least 123 on Tuesday, Thanh Nien news reported, as parents rushed to get their children vaccinated against the highly contagious viral disease
A report by the Ministry of Health confirmed 3,430 confirmed cases and more than 5,800 suspected ones as of last Sunday, in what doctors have called the country’s worst-ever measles outbreak.
But Health Minister Nguyen Thi Kim Tien has come under criticism for being slow to declare an epidemic and under-representing the number of children who died in the outbreak.
“I give up on you,” one Facebook user named Thu Hang wrote of the minister.
“How long do you want to cover this up before you declare an epidemic so that people will be aware of the situation?” her message said.
“How many more children have to die before you declare an epidemic?” a user named Dang Duc wrote, calling on Tien to resign.
“If you still have some dignity, please resign and give the position to someone else with better qualifications and more willingness to do the job so that the people will suffer less.”
Others said health officials are unwilling to acknowledge the public’s concerns because of commitments Vietnam has made to eliminate measles from the country by 2017.
“Through this we can see how talented our health minister is—too talented. Her motto is listening to no one, knowing nothing, seeing nothing,” a Facebook user named Ngoc Khanh wrote.
Last week, Tien rejected claims that she had covered up the true number of deaths in the outbreak by reporting to the public that only 25 deaths were directly attributable to measles, while doctors at hospitals in Hanoi reported scores of young children dying from measles-linked infections.
After the doctors in the Vietnamese capital reported more than 100 deaths linked to measles, the Ministry of Health issued a statement acknowledging the higher figure but maintaining that its original, lower one was more precise, according to reports.
Measles deaths are usually a result of complications from the disease, according to the World Health Organization, which has been monitoring the measles situation in Vietnam.
Deputy Minister of Health Nguyen Thanh Long said Friday that although Vietnam has yet to declare a measles epidemic, that does not mean the ministry has concealed the truth of the situation, according to Thanh Nien.
The ministry has said it will only declare an epidemic if it detects mutations in the measles virus, according to the paper.
Popular blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, who goes by the pen name Me Nam or “Mother Mushroom,” said the public is concerned the Ministry of Health is deviating from global standards in its guidelines for responding to outbreaks and declaring epidemics.
“What’s in Vietnam’s guidelines is different from the WHO’s standards,” she said.
“So Vietnam’s [guidelines for] declaring an outbreak are different from [those in] other countries in the world.”
Vietnam’s standards for communicating with the public about a disease outbreak and monitoring the cases of the disease in hospitals are lacking, with not enough money devoted to the tasks, she said.
The recent public criticism of Tien over the ministry’s handling of the outbreak was a revival of a campaign last year that called for her resignation, Quynh added.
The WHO’s chief representative in Vietnam Takeshi Kasai told Vietnamese officials at a meeting last week that the decision to declare an outbreak is up to individual countries’ considerations, though just three deaths would be enough for a declaration, according to Tuoi Tre News.
He has also said he is “very concerned” about the outbreak, which follows a joint UNICEF and World Health Organization vaccination campaign that aimed to eliminate measles from Vietnam by 2012.
At a visit to hospitals in Hanoi on Monday, Tien said the high death rate in the current outbreak was due to a rush of patients that had caused overcrowding, Thanh Nien reported.
At the National Pediatric Hospital, where many of the serious cases were taken and where the vast majority of measles-linked deaths were reported, an overload of cases had caused overcrowding, she said.
“The children have to share beds, resulting in cross-infection in the hospital,” she told reporters.
Hot weather over the past two months had also facilitated the spread of the virus, she said.
In Hanoi and other parts of Vietnam where the outbreak has been centered, as well as in other parts of the country, residents have rushed to health centers in recent days to get their children and themselves vaccinated, according to reports.
Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung last week called for stepped-up measures to contain the outbreak, ordering local authorities and government agencies to focus resources on preventing the spread of the disease.
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.
In Vietnam, it is recommended that children have a first measles vaccination dose at 9 months old and a second after 12 months.
The WHO says two doses of the vaccine are needed to ensure immunity and prevent outbreaks, as about 15 percent of vaccinated children fail to develop immunity from the first dose.
In Vietnam’s previous measles flare-up in 2009-2010, there were two deaths, according to reports.
Reported by Chan Nhu for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.