Ghosts of vaccines past

Published January 25, 2022, 12:05 AM

by Raymundo W. Lo, MD, FPSP


Dr. Raymundo Lo

Finally, after nearly two years of silence, Persida Acosta, chief of the Public Attorney’s Office, explodes back onto the scene with a vengeance. Taking advantage of the furor over vaccine mandates, she tearfully implores authorities not to discriminate against the unvaccinated explaining that she’s also unvaccinated (with the COVID-19 vaccines) and all the while protesting that she’s not an anti-vaxxer.

Really? Her post (now deleted, as is her Twitter account) of “Vaccines Bioweapons” is currently circulating on social media. I’d call that prima facie evidence of being an anti-vaxxer.

That colors her advocacy campaign against the Dengvaxia vaccine and presents a clear bias. Remember how she demonized the vaccine as causing deaths in children and filed cases against former President Aquino and others (including myself after I testified in Congress that there was no scientific basis to these claims)? These are still in court, by the way.

As a result of the widespread misinformation and Senate hearings on the deaths allegedly due to Dengvaxia, vaccine confidence plunged from 92 percent in 2015 to 32 percent in 2018. Parents refused to have their children immunized against common childhood diseases like measles and chickenpox. Consequently, a measles epidemic broke out and hundreds of children died from measles. Polio resurfaced after it was almost completely eliminated from the Philippines. We were once on the leading edge of public health in terms of immunization programs. Now, we have to start from scratch all over again.

The pandemic brought the issue into sharp focus as scientists raced to develop vaccines against COVID-19, which were successfully trialed in different countries and with millions of subjects showing an excellent safety profile in the span of a few months. Contrast this with the 20 plus years it took to bring Dengvaxia to market. Note: Dengvaxia is now licensed for use in many countries around the world, and not just on an emergency-use authorization basis like COVID-19 vaccines. It is also currently listed under the WHO Essential Drug List. And yet the Philippines is still banning its use as we continue to struggle with dengue outbreaks year in year out.

Now we have enough COVID vaccines and an ongoing vaccination program with a target of inoculating 70 percent of the population. But what’s standing in the way is vaccine hesitancy.

Enter Persida and the Dengvaxia issue – resurrected thanks to an interview with Senator Drilon, who lays the blame squarely at her door. Senator Drilon states she should not come to work, as she will violate the “no vax, no work” government policy; so, as a high ranking government employee, she must toe the line and be a good example. Her superior, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, and DOH Secretary Francisco Duque have likewise advised her to get vaccinated. Otherwise, they say, she is fueling vaccine hesitancy by setting a bad example.

Well, what could be a worse example than chasing ambulances and raiding cemeteries and having corpses “autopsied” by an untrained “expert” of I-don’t-know-what?

After the Dengvaxia controversy, many are now afraid of vaccines in general “kasi baka ma-Dengvaxia.” Thankfully, recent surveys have shown dramatic reductions in the number of adult Filipinos unwilling to be vaccinated (from 33 percent last May, to 21 percent in June, 18 percent September, and only eight percent in December). However, among the unvaccinated, only 38 percent at most are willing to be vaccinated. That leaves a significant 62 percent unwilling to get jabbed. Based on a population of 110 million, a target of 70 percent to reach herd immunity, and 54.09 percent who have had at least one jab, the number of unvaccinated NOT willing to get jabbed is — drumroll please! — 21,917,434 out of 35,350,700 still to get their first shot (all data from SWS and DOH). That is still a huge number of vaccine hesitant/resistant persons at this phase of the pandemic, when vaccine supply is no longer an issue.

To say that all is well with our vaccine roll-out is disingenuous, considering the facts. Now here we have an anti-vaxxer claiming she is not, and explaining that she did not get jabbed because of her age and comorbidities, all of which are exactly the main reasons for getting vaccinated! Duh!

She claims to plead for the constitutional rights of the unvaccinated, whose vaccine hesitancy she brought on in the first place. Now she hogs the front pages of national newspapers and media, which will further exacerbate vaccine hesitancy. The ghosts of vaccines past are haunting us again.

Enough already, Persida! Have mercy on our country and people who are struggling to survive the pandemic, preserve their health, and overcome the economic repercussions.