Despite the fact that vaccines have saved uncountable lives and virtually wiped out smallpox, polio, tetanus and rabies, vaccine risks exist. When those risks result in death, people lose trust in all vaccines.
Look at what happened in the Philippines. In 2015 they purchased three million doses of a new dengue vaccine.
Dengue is not as deadly as it might seem. Three-quarters of people infected by the mosquito-borne virus don’t notice anything. The remainder fall into three groups – symptoms similar to the common cold; or a fever accompanied by headache, pain behind the eyes, aching joints and bones that sometimes leads to internal bleeding; or the most deadly, dengue hemorrhagic fever and dengue shock syndrome where plasma seeps out of capillaries, liquid pools around organs, massive internal bleeding ensues. The brain, kidneys and liver begin to fail (Scientific American, April, 2018).
In the Philippines with a population of 105,000, dengue kills an average of 750 people a year. Any death is one too many but that number doesn’t even put dengue-deaths in the top ten list of killers. Of infectious diseases, many more die from pneumonia and tuberculosis.
The dengue vaccine wasn’t cheap. Made by the pharmaceutical company Sanofi Pasteur, Dengvaxia cost more than the entire national vaccination program for 2015, which covered pneumonia, tuberculosis, polio, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, measles, mumps and rubella. And it would reach less than one percent of the population.
Some wondered if the vaccine Dengvaxia had been oversold to the Philippine government in a panic mode.
Here’s where the nightmare for pro-vaxxers comes in.
Internist Antonio Dans and paediatrician Leonila Dans at the University of the Philippines Manila College of Medicine discovered some startling results: young children who were vaccinated were more like likely to suffer from dengue that those who weren’t vaccinated.
They found this out by studying publications by the makers of the vaccine, Sanofi Pasteur. While it worked for older children, for younger ones, the vaccine made things worse.
The two Dans warned the Philippine secretary of health in 2016 of their findings but in the meantime, the World Health Organization said that there was no problem.
“It was either believe us or believe the WHO,” said Antonio Dans. “If I were them, I’d believe the WHO. I mean, who were we? We were just teachers in a small medical school.”
The Philippine secretary of health responded with her own warning: doctors who engaged in “misinformation” on the vaccine would be responsible for every death from dengue that could have been prevented.
Then Eva Harris, a dengue expert at the University of California, Berkeley, found strong evidence in 2017 to support the Dans:
Harris’s evidence made the world take notice. Now Sanofi Pasteur and the WHO don’t recommend Dengvaxia for young children who have not been previously infected.
The reasons why Dengvaxia makes matters worse for children who have not been infected and better for those who have is puzzling. There are a few theories but it’s debatable.
The confusion has led to lack of confidence in vaccinations. In 2015, 93 per cent of Filipinos strongly agreed that vaccines are important. In 2018, less than a third thought so.
Now, Filipinos suspicious of vaccines aren’t getting kids vaccinated and several outbreaks of measles have occurred.
Vaccines save lives but in a rush to save lives at any cost, the rollout of Dengvaxia was too soon and the cost was a loss of confidence of all vaccines.