Vaccination is not immune to controversy. However, does the debate over it help save children, or does it actually put them at more risk?
There is a monument to King Carlos IV of Spain in front of Manila Cathedral. It was made in the 19th century to honor him for sending the smallpox vaccine to the Philippines in 1803. Smallpox itself was not eradicated from the country until well into the 20th century, and numerous Filipino adults today still have the telltale scars from smallpox vaccination on their upper arms. The worldwide eradication of this disease by 1979 is widely considered as one of the greatest medical achievements in history, and no doubt contributed to the growth of faith in vaccines. At present, immunization schedules for a variety of diseases are the norm for children in the Philippines, and the government all the way down to the barangay level has a highly-developed vaccination program. These would not have been possible without the sustained faith of generations in the efficacy and importance of vaccines, a faith apparently vindicated by their results.
In recent months, however, the trust that many Filipinos placed in the efficacy of vaccination has been sorely tested by the controversy over Dengvaxia. News broke out towards the end of November 2017 that this anti-dengue vaccine, which more than 800,000 children had already received, put them at risk of falling victim to a more severe level of this disease should they be infected by it. This was followed by reports of some vaccinated children dying afterwards from dengue; autopsies on a few of these children seemed to confirm the possibility that Dengvaxia played a role in their deaths. These reports had the immediate effect of anxious parents opting out of vaccination for their kids. As reported by the Philippine Daily Inquirer:
Health Undersecretary Rolando Enrique Domingo on Friday said many parents, fearing for the safety of their children, have kept them away from important vaccines after the DOH stopped the massive immunization program last November that inoculated 830,000 children. … “Our problem right now is that our health programs are suffering,” Domingo said. “Even vaccination rates are suffering.” (Aurelio, J.M and Pazzibugan, D. Z. [2018, February 4]. Panic over Dengvaxia hurting other immunization, health programs. Philippine Daily Inquirer. Retrieved from http://newsinfo.inquirer.net)
Regardless of the actual role of Dengvaxia in the deaths of some children from dengue, it is clear that many children have been exposed to unacceptable risks by it. For a nation known for its love of children, this breach in public trust will not be forgotten for a long time. Allegations of corruption and the role of big pharma (in this case, Dengvaxia’s manufacturer, Sanofi-Pasteur) in this whole fiasco raise the probability that the safety and lives of children were sacrificed in the name of profit.
This is not the first time in recent decades that vaccination has become a matter of great controversy in the Philippines. In 1995 the government’s tetanus toxoid vaccine program was denounced by pro-lifers who charged that the vaccine was laced with an abortifacient chemical, and that the program itself was part of a surreptitious population control program. A Philippine Medical Association (PMA) study in 1996 confirmed that part of the government’s tetanus vaccine supply was contaminated with abortifacients. The Department of Health stopped the program after the PMA report, but by then over 3 million Filipinos had been administered the vaccine. One would think that a controversy involving the safety and health of millions of Filipinos would have profound and long-lasting echoes in the media and public opinion. However the issue at that time was framed as a dispute over “population control”, and was hastily buried, perhaps to appease population control advocates.
Nowadays, with the growth of Internet access, more and more Filipinos read articles and research on the dangers and side effects of vaccination. There is also the interest in more natural or organic approaches to wellness and healing, and this often leads to the rejection of vaccines as unnatural to the human body. It is no surprise that many strong opponents of vaccination are mothers of young children who want their offspring to avoid its perceived dangers and side effects. At the same time there are also dedicated supporters of vaccination (also including concerned mothers) who hold that the opposition to it endangers children even more. Since vaccination can be a matter of life or death, particularly for children, it rouses intense passions that is reflected in the debate surrounding it, especially online.
Mothers speaking out
Stephanie Patag, a Filipina pro-life blogger based in the U.S., summarized for Family Time the issues involved: “I don’t have a problem with vaccinations per se, my problem is with big pharma who push them indiscriminately for money, and with doctors who assume that parents are stupid. Informed consent is key in good doctor-parent-patient relationships.”
In her view, it is important to be guided by doctors who are both pro-life and who are educated enough about vaccines to be able to separate myth from reality: “We found ourselves a good pro-life doctor who takes the time to listen to our concerns, takes the time to explain to us what is misconception, what is myth, what is truth, and is willing to space out vaccinations, obtain ethically-made vaccines, or forego certain vaccines.”
For instance, Patag said her doctor recommends the traditional vaccinations for MMR (measles, mumps, rubella), etc. but not the HPV vaccines nor the annual flu vaccine. “Bottom line was it was our decision to vax or not. We trust him because he gets continuing education on these matters and at the same time is involved in the pro-life movement, so he understands our concerns with regards to ethics, aborted fetal cells (used for the development of some vaccines – author), and the primacy of parents’ rights,” she added.
We spoke to mothers who are strongly opposed to vaccines. Sylvia Garcia Czaja, a Filipina pro-life activist based in Australia, told Family Time that “there is so much controversy surrounding vaccines and big pharma has not provided clear answers.” She particularly lambasted the American 1986 National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act, which, according to her, protects pharmaceutical companies by making the U.S. government pay for vaccine-related injuries. In defense of parents refusing vaccination for their children, Czaja pointed out that “the primary duty of caring for a child belongs to the parents, not the doctor”.
Angelique Olloren, an advocate for alternative approaches to wellness and parenting, asserted that “vaccines contain heavy metals such as mercury and aluminum, aborted human or monkey fetal cells. These and other ingredients have no contribution to human health, especially in infants and children”. Echoing the claims of researchers such as Megan Heimer, she alleged that “at least 27 vaccines contain aborted baby cells, cellular debris, protein, and DNA from aborted babies including (but not limited to), Adenovirus, Polio, Dtap/Polio/HiB Combo, Hep A, Hep A/Hep B Combo, MMR, MMRV Pro Quad, Rabies, Varicella, Shingles vaccines, Ebola, HIV, tuberculosis, malaria, and influenza vaccines.”
Other mothers that Family Time spoke with are convinced that the anti-vaccine campaign is getting out of hand. Olivia Buenafe, who works in the Chemistry Department of Ateneo de Manila, affirmed to Family Time that “vaccines when properly designed and tested are generally safe. Administration of vaccines is a public health issue…” According to her, vaccines have two uses: to protect the patient and to protect those who cannot receive the shot due to serious health reasons (age, compromised immune system) in the population.
Two other mothers that Family Time spoke with were in favor of vaccination. “Doctors, if they are a member of their professional association, should more or less conform to the standards. They have a set of recommended vaccines”, said Armi Santos, a graduate of Philippine Science High School (PSHS). Another PSHS graduate, Caitlin Lavin, whose husband is a polio survivor, affirmed that “Vaccines save lives. Vaccines are a must for all kids”.
Church: silence or caution?
The Church’s teaching authority has historically been quiet on the morality of vaccination. This is not surprising; contrary to popular perception, the Church hierarchy tends to defer to mainstream positions when it comes to scientific and medical issues, except when doctrinal and moral principles are unequivocally at stake. What the Church has been strongly vocal about are, first, the use of vaccines prepared with cell lines from aborted babies, and, second, the use of certain vaccines by shadowy forces as a way of implementing anti-pregnancy programs.
The Vatican has issued documents such as Donum Vitae (1987) and Dignitas Personae (2009) which, among other things, teach that in order to affirm the value of life, tissue taken from deliberately aborted babies should not be used for vaccines. Conversely, vaccines made with such tissue should be avoided where possible. At the same time “grave reasons” such as the need to safeguard the health of children are considered as enough justification to use such vaccines. Exactly how grave a “grave reason” should be is not elucidated in detail, and currently remains a matter of debate among Catholic theologians.
Much clearer is the Church’s opposition to the use of vaccination as a way of achieving population control. The Philippines is not the only place where the tetanus vaccine has been plausibly linked to sterilization: in 2014 the Catholic bishops of Kenya denounced their country’s tetanus program for the same reasons.
Avoiding extremes, putting children first
It beyond question that many vaccines can have serious side effects that are irresponsibly downplayed, and that the multiplication of vaccine use has not always been free of commercial interests and disregard for human life. That many opponents of vaccination want to safeguard children’s health is beyond question, and for this reason alone they certainly deserve a proper hearing. At the same time it is fair to ask if the movement to push back against vaccination, in its turn, puts children in more, and not less, danger, by threatening to dismantle vaccination programs that have proven effective in saving children’s lives. The controversy over the supposed link between autism and the MMR vaccine is a case in point. This claim continues to be propagated on the internet despite its source: a 1998 Lancet medical paper by Andrew Wakefield that was fully retracted by the same journal in 2010; shortly afterwards, Wakefield was removed from the UK medical register because of the “fraudulent” character of his 1998 paper.
Perhaps it is best that families study the issues themselves, and ask honest and tough questions if need be, but without being dismissive of the advice of trusted family doctors. The safety of children, and consequently, all citizenry, calls for nothing less.