The elephant in the vaccination room

Published October 26, 2021, 12:05 AM

by Raymundo W. Lo, MD, FPSP


Dr. Raymundo Lo

The whole world is now focused on COVID-19 vaccines. Even while many countries in Asia have vaccinated most, if not all, of their target populations, the Philippines is still grappling with such vaccination issues as the slow pace of rollouts, poor coordination between agencies in vaccination certificates, vaccine supply, the need for boosters, and of course, vaccine hesitancy.

When news broke of the survey on vaccine acceptance among Filipinos in the early part of the year, it was no surprise. It showed that only 32 percent of those surveyed were willing to be vaccinated, 47 percent rejected it, and 21 percent were undecided.

The Dengvaxia issue, it said, was the primary reason for loss of trust in vaccinations. In February 2018, the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) filed the first of several cases of homicide against Sanofi Pasteur Inc. as well as several Department of Health officials, past and present, in various courts all over the country.

A year later, the FDA revoked the vaccine’s license to be marketed and used in the Philippines, despite the fact that a large majority of countries, including the European Union and the USA, the latter having approved in May 2019.

By July 2019, another dengue epidemic was raging in the Philippines, killing hundreds, primarily children. Calls were made to review the ban on Dengvaxia, the only existing vaccine against dengue, only for the DOH to reject Sanofi’s appeal to reverse the ban.

By the time the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic was starting in early 2020, around 40 cases of alleged deaths due to Dengvaxia had been filed, even without definite proof of causation. But the pandemic shifted attention away from the issue until the vaccine survey came out on Jan. 8, 2021, citing the Dengvaxia issue as a reason for the general fear of vaccinations.

What is even more concerning now is that amid the loss of trust in vaccines, the DOJ and PAO are still filing cases, and Public Atty. Persida Acosta claims they have over a hundred cases still to be filed. In essence, the hysteria over Dengvaxia will continue to haunt the COVID-19 vaccination campaign even if enough doses of COVID vaccines are procured.

This is the elephant in the room no one wants to acknowledge.

Though COVID vaccine acceptance has recently increased, there is still a sizable minority unwilling to be vaccinated, especially in the provinces, where vaccination fears still run rampant. No matter how much we campaign for acceptance of the COVID vaccines, if less than 70 percent of the population are vaccinated, we will not develop herd immunity.

How to move forward? The only way is to lay the Dengvaxia issue to rest once and for all by the speedy resolution of the court cases filed. This is assuming that Acosta, who has shown a propensity for drama and hyperbole, will not abet hysterical demonstrations against it. We need to have an open, public, and impartial hearing of the cases so we can see for ourselves, once and for all, their merits or lack thereof.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) should stop filing cases until the current batch is resolved. When news breaks out that more cases have been filed, then the populace will fear vaccinations even more. The DOJ should be one with the rest of government in combating the pandemic. This will be its way of contributing to, rather than hindering, the development of herd immunity with the COVID vaccines. Otherwise, it is standing in the way of the IATF, of which its Secretary is a part. Does the DOJ realize this? Or is its head buried in the sand while the PAO continues to rampage through Dengvaxia into promoting vaccine hesitancy? All the planning on vaccine approval, procurement, cold storage, distribution, and vaccination campaigns is of no use if only a few will avail themselves of the vaccines. Let’s face it, Dengvaxia looms large over the COVID vaccine. We need to resolve it now.