Four 10-month-old babies died of anti-measles vaccine in Thiruvallur, off Chennai, capital of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The children died within minutes of being administered the vaccine at two medical camps in Tamil Nadu's Thiruvallur district on Wednesday.
Three girls died at a centre in Pennalurpettai village, about 75 km from the state capital. The fourth, a baby boy, died after getting the shot in Venkatapuram village near Tiruttani, 35 km from Thiruvallur.
The vaccination programme has since been suspended pending further investigation. Also suspended were two public health nurses. But many are wondering the protocol for the cold chain for preserving vaccines was broken at any stage.
Unsure about what might have caused the deaths, the Union Health Ministry rushed a two-member team of experts headed by Pawan Murti of India's National Polio Surveillance programme (NPSP) to inquire into the deahs.
Samples from various batches of the vaccine allocated to Tamil Nadu have been sent to the Central Research Institute, Kasauli, for testing.
Eyewitnesses told the Times of India that the babies started frothing at the mouth, turned blue and died after they were given the injection.
Adding to the problem was the fact that there was no provision to take the babies to hospital in case of emergencies. "We did not plan for an ambulance or medical support," a health official said, adding that it was supposed to be a routine programme of immunisation.
"I knew she was dying, but there was no doctor around," said a weeping grandmother. "I saw the other two babies dying in their mothers' arms."
Preliminary inquiries revealed that vials were transported from the central government drug store in Chennai to the public health centres in the district last week. They were then taken to the immunisation camps on Wednesday.
Public health joint director M Sarala said the vials distributed in both the places were of the same batch and manufactured by a Human Biologicals Institute, a Hyderabad-based laboratory, in February. The expiry date was shown as year 2010. She maintained that the cold chain was not broken.
The village health nurses and nursing assistants first vaccinated pregnant women and then turned to babies.
Each vial of vaccine contains five doses of 0.5 cc each. At the Pennalurpettai centre, doses were administered to three babies from the same vial. All the three died. About 130 vials of the same batch were distributed across the district and 252 children were immunised, but no complication was reported from other centres. Immunisation of 78 other children in the district using vaccines manufactured by another laboratory went incident-free.
The Union health ministry also said it would examine the entire batch of measles vaccine procured from the Hyderabad-based laboratory. The injectible measles vaccine, which provides 85% protection, is administered only once — when a child is nine-month-old. Officials saidthey wanted to check the vaccine's efficacy and safety in order to ascertain whether the deaths occurred due to a break in the cold chain or because the vaccines were contaminated.