BEIJING — China’s plans to vaccinate 100 million children and come a step closer to eradicating measles has set off a popular outcry that highlights widening public distrust of the authoritarian government after repeated health scandals.
Since the Health Ministry announced the World Health Organization-backed measles vaccination plan last week, authorities have been flooded with queries and Internet bulletin boards have been plastered with messages filled with worry. Conspiracy theories saying the vaccines are dangerous have spread by cellphone text message.
The ministry has tried to calm the public’s anxieties about the 10-day measles immunization drive, which started Saturday. It has issued statements, rebutted rumors, and held briefings to emphasize the need for the vaccine as well as its safety.
The public skepticism has been covered by state-run media, which noted the lack of trust was about more than vaccines.
“Behind the public’s panic over the rumors is an expression of the citizens’ demands for security and a crisis in confidence,’’ a columnist wrote in the Chongqing Daily newspaper.
“The lack of trust toward our food and health products was not formed in one day,’’ said the Global Times newspaper. “Repairing the damage and building credibility will take a very long time. The public health departments need to take immediate action on all fronts.’’
In recent years, government agencies have dragged their feet or withheld information about the spread of SARS, bird flu, and, last month, an outbreak of cholera. China’s slow response to SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, was widely blamed for causing the outbreak that swept the globe in 2003, and led to deep mistrust both domestically and internationally.
Milk products contaminated with industrial chemicals are still turning up despite a scandal two years ago in which tainted infant formula sickened 300,000 babies and killed at least six.
Fueling worries about the measles vaccine were media reports in March that vaccines for encephalitis, hepatitis B, and other diseases possibly killed four children and seriously sickened dozens in one province. The Health Ministry said an investigation found that those vaccines were improperly stored but that subsequent illnesses were unrelated. Many remain unconvinced.