(ATTN: UPDATES with doctors' association's recommendation in paras 12-14)
SEOUL, Oct. 22 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's health authorities reaffirmed Thursday that the state-initiated seasonal flu shot program will continue despite more suspected deaths.
As of noon Thursday, at least 17 people have died after being vaccinated in recent days, up from eight a day ago. The country has been pushing for a state free flu shot scheme to inoculate some 19 million people, including teenagers and senior citizens, to curb the possible "twindemic."
"There were more reported cases of death; yet, it is the experts' opinion that there is no direct link between the deaths and the vaccination," Jeong Eun-kyeong, director of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA), said during a parliamentary hearing.
Jeong further said a thorough investigation is under way to find the exact cause of their deaths, as well as epidemiological investigations, including autopsies, into nine cases.
Of them, two deaths may be related to anaphylaxis shock, a serious allergic reaction that follows immunization, according to the KDCA.
The free vaccination program -- which was expanded this year in an effort to prevent the potential twindemic during the winter -- is joined by five major drugmakers that include GC Pharma and Ilyang Pharmaceutical Co.
Jeong said the vaccines given to the deceased were manufactured by the five firms and all have different serial numbers, refuting allegations of possible side effects, such as toxicity.
Earlier in the day, Health Minister Park Neung-hoo also sought to soothe growing public anxiety over flu shots stressing that the free program will go ahead as planned.
Fears over flu vaccines first emerged last Friday after a 17-year-old boy in the western port city of Incheon died two days after receiving a flu shot.
Similar fatalities were reported, mostly among senior citizens, health authorities said. Most of them also had underlying diseases.
Health authorities said they are closely monitoring people who were administered those vaccines at the same medical institutions as the deceased on the same day.
However, doctors advised the government to suspend the program until it confirms the safety of the vaccines.
"We advise vaccine inoculation programs be suspended for one week as the causal links between recent death cases and vaccination have not been clearly verified," the Korean Medical Association (KMA) said.
KMA is the country's largest doctors' association and represents some 130,000 doctors.
According to the KDCA, there has been only one death with a connection to a flu shot. In 2009, a 65-year-old woman was diagnosed with Miller Fisher syndrome, a rare nerve disease, after receiving a flu shot and died a year later.
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