The parents of at least 700,000 schoolchildren given the dengue vaccine Dengvaxia are understandably alarmed by the advisory from the pharmaceutical giant Sanofi Pasteur that the vaccine could worsen the disease in those not previously exposed to the infection.
Already, a measure of panic has set in amid the fierce finger-pointing and disinformation being spread by partisans who seized on the issue as a means to discredit their political enemies.
Calls for blood have been aired. The Department of Justice has told the National Bureau of Investigation to check out all those involved in the health campaign, including Benigno Aquino III during whose presidency the immunization drive started.
Raising a hue and cry, the newly minted cheering squad of the administration, the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption, said three children had died from being vaccinated — an incendiary claim that one of its own officials hastily disputed.
Predictably, a number of high-profile bloggers cried murder and accused Aquino of “genocide,” further stoking what has become a highly charged political issue.
Sanofi has denied treating Filipino children as guinea pigs, pointing out that the vaccine was released after the conduct of clinical studies in a number of countries in Asia and Latin America, and upon licensing by the Food and Drug Administration.
The studies, Sanofi added, were in accordance with standards set by the World Health Organization.
The pharma company’s warning prompted the Department of Health to, correctly, suspend the vaccination program. Nevertheless, it is incumbent upon the DOH to answer certain questions to the satisfaction of worried parents and other anxious sectors.
People want to know why the DOH undertook such a massive vaccination campaign despite reservations expressed by health experts and medical personnel.
To be sure, at that time news of the development of Dengvaxia served to soothe a populace anxious about the great numbers falling victim to dengue.
The public now looks to then Health Secretary Janette Garin, who was directly involved in the initial phase of the immunization, to explain the circumstances behind the decision to embark on the campaign.
It also looks to the government to clearly explain the steps it is taking to address the situation and calm the panic.
The vaccination campaign was continued under the Duterte administration despite, it has been claimed, the reluctance of his former health secretary Paulyn Ubial.
The reason? It is said that certain members of the House of Representatives had threatened to hold hostage the budget of the DOH unless it embarked on an extensive vaccination program.
With the blame game has come rationalizations made in the course of efforts to tamp down the panic: “The side effects are not that bad—two days of fever, bruising, a lower platelet count. And since the dengue mosquito is endemic, 9 of 10 Filipinos have already been exposed to the virus so the vaccine is risky only to the remaining 1 percent.” The public needs to be told constantly and authoritatively what to expect.
It would take three years before the full effects of the vaccine can be determined. What happens to the 700,000-plus children already immunized?
Dr. Rafael Castillo, who writes the health column “Medical Files” In Inquirer Lifestyle, has a reasonable suggestion: Sanofi should return the P3.5 billion paid by the Philippine government for Dengvaxia so the latter can use the money to monitor the health conditions of the vaccinated children.
The long-term surveillance of the vaccinated children should hew closely to the DOH’s established framework on monitoring dengue cases among the immunized subjects in the next five years.
This framework includes mandatory history-taking on the vaccines; mandatory reporting of all hospitalized cases of dengue, regardless of symptoms; mandatory investigation of cases and provision of supportive care when the children get sick; and review, if necessary, of the DOH’s dengue immunization guidelines.
Politicizing the issue and distributing blame to destroy reputations and propel political careers do not help.
Neither does creating unnecessary fears and demonizing vaccines altogether, as this would only feed the ignorance and superstition that can cost vulnerable children in remote areas their childhood, their health, and sadly enough in some cases, even their very lives.