07/20/2006, 00.00
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Encephalitis strikes Guangdong children, public vaccination seen as culprit

Parents of children struck by meningitis vaccine have tried almost everything to get justice from an uncaring government.

Beijing (AsiaNews/SCMP) – A group of farmers in Jiangmen has tried almost everything to get justice for, to use officials' term, their "unfortunate children". One farmer cycled for 37 days from Guangdong to Beijing, hoping state-level officials could respond to his dying daughter's plight. Another one wrote to Premier Wen Jiabao after approaching countless doctors for help but all in vain.

Their children contracted acute toxic encephalitis after taking a meningitis vaccine distributed by the government. Some have lost the ability to talk, walk or even sit up after the injections.

In a last-ditch effort, three penniless farmers and a five-year-old girl struck down by the illness are in Hong Kong to appeal for help.

"We want justice for these children. Something has apparently gone very wrong with the vaccine. But the different levels of government kept throwing us back and forth and refused to take responsibility," said Yu Tongan, 41.

His son was given the meningitis vaccine by medical staff sent to his primary school in March of last year. Within hours the 11-year-old developed a fever and went into a coma. He has since been unable to attend school because he cannot walk or speak, and has developed epilepsy.

"Some officials coldly told me that it was simply bad luck, since the vaccine worked on the other children," Mr Yu said. Others like Guangdong Governor Huang Huahua, to whom he wrote, said nothing.

Mr Yu did however meet six other victims who were staying in the same ward as his son at a Jiangmen hospital last year. The 'bad luck' theory could thus not be sustained.

One of those other children, five-year-old Jiayi, has also come to Hong Kong with her parents Liang Yongli and Liu Xueyun.

Every two minutes, the girl stretches her limbs uncontrollably and foams at the mouth.

Her father, Mr Liang, 37, said he had cycled the 6,000 kilometres from Jiangmen to Beijing in May last year to confront state officials—who told him they were too senior to tackle a small problem in a farming village.

For his part, Mr Yu still hoped "to appeal to those who can help us take the case to court in Beijing," adding that "more urgently, we need the money to get medical treatment for our children before their situation deteriorates."

He has already spent more than 100,000 yuan (almost € 10,000 or US$ 12,500), some of it borrowed, on his son's treatment.

Yet the farmers' plight was dismissed by mainland authorities yesterday. Huang Baoming, director of the Jiangmen Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said the local health authority bore no responsibility for the encephalitis cases.

Guangdong Health Department spokesman Feng Shaomin said the health authority had already investigated the matter and found "the children's encephalitis had no connection with the vaccine".

Mr Feng said the health authority would submit the "objective investigation's results" to the court as evidence if the parents pursued the matter through the courts.

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