Hospitals in Kerala grappling with hepatitis B vaccine shortage; experts cry foul

Newborns being administered vaccine at government hospitals; fraternity fears supply might dwindle
Representative image
Representative image

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: Hospitals in the state are facing a hepatitis B vaccine shortage that could potentially place the lives of newborns at risk. Though the shortage is acute in private hospitals, some government hospitals have also been affected. Currently, newborns are administered the vaccine at government hospitals, but the medical fraternity fears this supply could also dwindle in the absence of immediate intervention.

The scarcity has already affected adult vaccinations, crucial for health workers and travellers. Experts, however, believe that this is a manufactured shortage aimed at inflating vaccine prices. The hepatitis B, Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) and oral polio vaccines are administered within the first 24 hours of a newborn’s life. The hepatitis vaccine is primarily aimed at preventing infection from the mother to the baby. With a relatively high prevalence of hepatitis B and serious liver infections among the population, vaccination at birth is considered important.

“It is an artificially created supply issue. If there is a shortage in private hospitals, then the price at which the government procures the vaccine can also be increased. A shortage helps increase the cost of emergency purchases,” a source said.

He blamed the Kerala Medical Services Corporation (KMSCL) for not making enough purchases, considering the demand. “The purchase intent is prepared by calculating the number of births from the data procured through Asha workers. The government cannot handle the situation if there is a shortage in the private sector. When there is a shortage, prices get revised across the sector,” he added.

Representative image
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The vaccine component is manufactured for the supply of combination vaccines such as the pentavalent vaccine, which is costlier. The standalone hepatitis B vaccine has a lower margin. The vaccine costs around Rs 50-100 in private. A host of companies, including the Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech, supply vaccines to government hospitals.

“The shortage of hepatitis B vaccines is a serious issue that requires the immediate attention of the government. We share the concern that the stock will completely dry up in the coming days,” said Dr Purushothaman Kuzhikkathukandiyil, professor of paediatrics at Malappuram MES Medical College.

Some government hospitals have already placed restrictions on adult vaccination, according to doctors. “The vaccine is not available for purchase in private. We do get people referred from the private sector. But we have put in place some restrictions as there is a concern about the stock,” a government doctor said. The vaccination is key for those going abroad for studies, medical students, health workers, etc.

A KMSCL official said that the shortage has not come to his notice and the standalone hepatitis B vaccine is neither part of the essential drug list nor the vaccination schedule.

However, the health department started providing the standalone hepatitis B vaccination a couple of years ago considering it benefits in preventing infection among newborns. The state records around 750 births every day.

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