POSTSCRIPT / February 4, 2018 / Sunday


Opinion Columnist

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Was death due to, or despite, vaccine?

WE DON’T normally comment on reports of fellow media men, but in the face of the alarming TV series of ABS-CBN on deaths being linked to the Dengvaxia vaccine, we ask if the deaths were due to the anti-dengue vaccine or in spite of it.

A quick and clear answer is in order, because the report of the TV anchor — who is not a pathologist but talks like one — has scared many parents into refusing to have their children inoculated against a variety of diseases, including measles, polio, chicken pox, and tetanus.

We think it was irresponsible for the network to have gone to town with premature conclusions without scientific basis, and running videos of distraught parents crying beside a coffin and denouncing the government’s immunization campaign, demanding justice among other things.

The melodramatic TV report was given added impact by the vociferous chief lawyer of the Public Assistance Office vowing in her usual shrill voice the prosecution of those responsible for the deaths of children vaccinated by the previous administration.

Her performance may earn her a slot in the administration Senate ticket in 2019, but will ABS-CBN get an extension of its broadcasting franchise that expires in 2020? President Duterte said he may look kindly on the network, despite its “sins,” if it supports the revision of the Constitution and a shift to a federal system.

While the network’s series has scared parents of the more than 800,000 children vaccinated, a review by experts of the University of the Philippines-Philippine General Hospital showed that only three of the 14 children whose cases were studied died of dengue after being vaccinated with Dengvaxia.

Three fatalities out of more than 800,000 are still disturbing enough, but a certain small percentage of non-success of vaccines, such as Dengvaxia which is manufactured by the French pharma Sanofi Pasteur, is statistically expected.

Health Undersecretary Rolando Domingo said Friday that the UP-PGH panel tasked by the health department to look into the dengue-related deaths reported that “three cases were found to have causal association.” They died of dengue despite receiving Dengvaxia.

Two of the other fatalities may have died because of “vaccine failure,” he said, stressing that more tests should still be done on them.

The panel reported that the deaths of three other children had nothing to do with the vaccine, while six others developed other diseases within 30 days after being vaccinated.

Domingo said the findings showed that the decision to suspend the Dengvaxia vaccination was right. He reiterated the advisory that the vaccine should not be given to children who have not contracted dengue before and those suffering from another disease at the time.

Meantime, the broadcasters of ABS-CBN and the chief lawyer of PAO may want to heed the experts’ findings. Next time, they should also distinguish if certain deaths linked to a vaccine were due to or in spite of it.

On the alarm over deaths of children who happened to have been vaccinated, Domingo deplored that the widespread fear of parents has upset the government campaign against preventable diseases.

The undersecretary said: “Our programs are suffering… (Filipinos) are scared of all vaccines now.” He said that immunization rates for some diseases are down to 60 percent, significantly lower than in recent years and below the target of 85 percent.

“When you go to the communities,” he said, “All the pediatricians are really heartbroken, because the patients — the parents (and) the children — feel that they are going to die.”

He said that situation has the potential for epidemics. Citing dengue, he noted that the Philippines has one of the highest fatality rates in the world, with 732 deaths last year.

 ‘Fake news as old as Adam and Eve’

GOING back to the issue of “fake news” which is carelessly, sometimes deliberately, used interchangeably with “false news” and malicious disinformation, Pope Francis himself called its spread as “evil,” while lauding institutional efforts to combat it.

In a message Wednesday on World Communication Day, the Pope called for greater efforts to fight fake news. He said that the evil was first created in the Garden of Eden when the serpent, according to the Bible’s opening chapter, tempted Eve.

The Pope said: “This was the strategy employed by the ‘crafty serpent’ in the Book of Genesis, who, at the dawn of humanity, created the first fake news which began the tragic history of human sin, beginning with the first fratricide and issuing in the countless other evils committed against God, neighbor, society and creation.”

The pontiff said interactions among like-minded people within digital environments, like social media, make unmasking and eliminating fake news difficult.

The Senate has been holding public hearings to find ways to curb “fake news” especially in the digital age when anybody with the right gadgets and the wrong motives can post and spread with ease malicious and hurtful information and opinion.

A number of public information experts say, however, that even without remedial legislation, the government and victims of fake news can still avail themselves of existing laws to go after the perpetrators.

“Fake news” in the Philippines can be traced not only to the Duterte administration, described by some of its detractors as the biggest source of disinformation, but also to its critics and other sectors aiming to destabilize the establishment.

One dangerous trend is the use of “fake news” to erode the credibility of legitimate media by raising to the maximum indiscriminate distrust by the public of all reports, regardless of the source.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of February 4, 2018)

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