It is easy to scare parents about vaccines because nobody wants to put the life of their child at risk. But fear-mongering threatens lives.
Earlier this month, a doctor filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court calling for a ban on the pentavalent vaccine, a five-in-one shot that combines hepatitis B, diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus with a new vaccine for Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib).
World Health Organization studies found that Hib is a major cause of bacterial meningitis and pneumonia in the Philippines, India, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam. Not vaccinating against Hib puts children’s health at risk.
The litigation fails to look at the bigger picture of why the vaccine was introduced.
Critics say pentavalent is killing children. Reports at the time the litigation was filed alleged 21 children died due to the vaccine in India. But no causative link has been found.
These critics also create confusion by saying the vaccine is banned or not in use in Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Bhutan. That is not true. Vaccines were suspended there pending investigations, but they are back in use. Furthermore, Indonesia has just introduced pentavalent in its national program.
The negative headlines write themselves, especially if no one checks the validity of the facts. When we don’t scrutinize every death in the age group involved, but only deaths after vaccination, the sequence can be mistaken for consequence.
In 2009, India’s National Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation advised the government to incorporate Hib via pentavalent into its national immunization program. The recommendation was endorsed by the Indian Academy of Pediatrics, a body of more than 19,000 pediatricians.
Since then, around 8.2 million doses have been administered to children in eight Indian states and the government is considering rolling out the vaccine nationwide.
But some people want to obstruct progress and spread misinformation suggesting there is direct link between child deaths and the vaccine, and that the vaccine is currently banned in multiple countries.
This threatens India’s ability to save children’s lives.
The Indian Academy of Pediatrics has tried to reassure parents and pediatricians about the pentavalent vaccine. It says critics are trying to distort facts regarding the safety of the vaccine and cherry-picking studies or technical reports while often neglecting or manipulating conclusions.
The pentavalent vaccine used in India is produced by the Serum Institute, which also exports the vaccine to 85 countries. The WHO says pentavalent vaccines from five different manufacturers, including the Serum Institute, are prequalified and considered safe, effective and of assured quality.
Unicef says 177 countries incorporate the Hib vaccine used in pentavalent into their national immunization programs
The pentavalent formulation used in India has been tested in more than 23 clinical trials, carefully monitoring over 12,000 infants, and the results show the vaccine is effective and has an excellent safety profile. There are mild side effects such as fever, pain, swelling and redness at the site of injection, but these are inconsequential.
Any interventions can carry risks, not necessarily due to the product but because of circumstances. Deaths in automobile accidents, for example, can’t always be blamed on the automobile itself.
Disgruntled doctors misusing data combined with an irresponsible press can damage public opinion and lead policymakers into panicked decisions that are not based on scientific evidence. The consequences can be dangerous and long lasting.
According to Unicef, 1.66 million children in India die every year from preventable diseases like pneumonia, diarrhea, malnutrition and complications at birth, which includes preterm birth complications, newborn infections and birth asphyxia.
Responsible citizens must speak against bad science, scare tactics and policy paralysis to ensure that India’s children are saved from preventable disease.
Source: Wall Street Journal