Fear and loathing over dengue | Inquirer Opinion
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At Large

Fear and loathing over dengue

/ 05:06 AM February 04, 2018

In 1995, Catholic groups issued an “exposé” regarding the use of an antitetanus vaccine — administered to pregnant women and newborns to prevent tetanus infection during delivery — that supposedly caused abortions.

It just so happened that around that time everyone was preparing for senatorial elections. Among the candidates was a former health secretary, Juan Flavier, who had antagonized church authorities with his wholehearted support for family planning. Immediately, Flavier sensed something afoot.

The alarms raised, Flavier said, was part of a “smear campaign” against him, which had by then caused him to slide from a ranking of second or third in surveys to fourth or fifth. But he wasn’t worried only about his standing in the elections. The “abortion scare” had also scared away mothers not just from getting the antitetanus vaccine, but, even worse, from bringing their children for the other vaccines as well, such as those against measles, polio, cholera, whooping cough, and even the deadly smallpox.

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Flavier, since deceased, ended in fifth place among the winning senators, and as he joked at the time, he didn’t worry too much about the outcome because “as far as I know, even if you end up last, they’ll still call you ‘Senator.’” However, Filipino children ended up paying the price. The following year saw a spike in the number of children dying from diseases which authorities thought had been brought under control.

Now we have the hysteria surrounding dengue and the vaccine with the trade name Dengvaxia.

After the Department of Health revealed that Sanofi Pasteur, manufacturer of Dengvaxia, had gone public with findings that more serious forms of dengue could occur in vaccinated children who had never had dengue, many experts — self-declared or otherwise — came out of the woodwork crying (literally in the case of Public Attorney’s Office chief Persida Acosta) foul.

The dengue vaccine program, which saw some 830,000 children in dengue-prone areas inoculated, has been suspended, amid demands that Sanofi Pasteur return the amount that the government had paid for it.

Meanwhile, an expert panel from the Philippine General Hospital convened by the DOH has concluded that of the 14 children who died after receiving the vaccine, “only three contracted the dengue virus.” Three cases out of 830,000? I’m not a public health expert, but that sounds to me like an acceptable — even if still tragic — ratio.

Fifty-eight doctors and scientists, including two former health secretaries, have also signed a statement expressing “dismay” at what they called the “unsubstantiated” claims being made about the risks of a dengue vaccine.

Alarmist reports, including those erroneously claiming that the children “died from Dengvaxia,” have discouraged parents from availing themselves of not just the dengue vaccine but also other immunization programs for their children.

The signatories said they are “saddened, dismayed, and alarmed” at how the controversy has turned into a “fiasco.”

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The “unnecessary fear and panic, largely brought about by the imprudent language and unsubstantial accusations by persons whose qualifications to render any expert opinion on the matter are questionable at best, have caused many parents to resist having their children avail of life saving vaccines that our government gives,” the doctors asserted.

We may in fact be facing an even greater public health crisis if the hysteria persists, and it’s a mystery to me why higher authorities don’t muzzle such publicity-seeking officials like Acosta who has even hired her own coroner even if her office is only supposed to provide defense for destitute accused. Legislative hearings, attended by no less than former president Benigno Aquino III who authorized the vaccine purchase, have now strayed into extraneous matters, including accusations about a “mafia” in the DOH.

While I do agree with the doctors that in the heat of the blowback the dengue vaccine program should remain suspended, I also hope everyone takes this time to take a breath, calm their emotions, and take a more rational approach to the issue.

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TAGS: At Large, Dengue, Dengvaxia, DoH, Juan Flavier, Rina Jimenez-David
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