Vaccine manufacturer Sanofi Pasteur admitted in November that the vaccine, Dengvaxia, might increase the odds of severe illness in inoculated children who had not previously been infected with the dengue virus. Over 800,000 children were injected with the vaccine, and a panel of experts formed to investigate 14 deaths concluded that at least three had “causal association,” per Reuters:
“Three cases were found to have causal association. They died of dengue even (though) they were given Dengvaxia. Two of them may have died because of vaccine failure,” Health Undersecretary Enrique Domingo told a news conference.
“These findings strengthen the decision of the Department of Health to stop the vaccine. It has failed in some children. Dengvaxia is not ready for mass vaccinations and we would need three to five more years to watch and monitor if there would be other adverse reactions from the vaccine.”
Sanofi denies the deaths are connected, and the panel of experts is recommending further study due to the difficulty of verifying the connection. In a statement to Reuters, Sanofi wrote that “We sympathise with all the families who have suffered the loss of a child. Sanofi Pasteur’s mission is to reduce or eliminate suffering for millions around the world through vaccination, including in the Philippines.”
According to the BBC, concerns over Dengvaxia have progressed into unwarranted concerns about other vaccinations like those for polio, chicken pox, and tetanus, all of which are verifiably safe. The Philippine Star reported a group of “doctors, academicians, scientists and health advocates” are petitioning the country’s Department of Justice to cease autopsies of children whose deaths are allegedly tied to Dengvaxia, saying that the findings show the ongoing risk is very low:
After the release of the findings, a group that includes former health secretary Esperanza Cabral and vaccine expert Lulu Bravo said [the Public Attorney’s Office] should no longer do autopsies because “it makes no sense for any more families to be subjected to the torture of having a loved one exhumed and cut up only to find out that no useful information was derived from the cruel act.”
In a joint statement, the group urged “the DOJ to order the PAO to stop performing autopsies on these children and to leave the matter of determining the cause of death to competent forensic pathologists.”
Health authorities in the Philippines have conceded that the mass immunization program could have waited until safety trials on Dengvaxia to be concluded, in which case doctors would have known not to give the vaccine who had not previously been in contact with the virus. Yet it’s easy to see why they were eager to roll out the vaccine: Dengue is endemic throughout the region and causes up to 200,000 infections annually in the country.
Up to 400 million people each year get dengue fever, according to the Centers for Disease Control. As many as 500,000 of those cases progress into dengue hemorrhagic fever, which kills around 25,000 annually. There is no other known preventative measure other than exterminating mosquitos or preventing them from biting humans. The disease used to be mostly contained to a handful of countries but has since spread like wildfire to more than 100 countries, according to the World Health Organization, and recent research indicates that it could spread to Europe thanks to climate change.
Decades of research have proven that vaccines are safe and effective, though carry a small chance of side effects. When approving vaccines, health authorities generally ensure that the benefits greatly outweigh those possible side effects, and repeated studies have shown serious reactions to vaccinations are very rare. However, anti-vaccination activists who refuse to accept the scientific consensus on vaccine safety have grown in power in recent years, thanks in part to social media, and have been tied to outbreaks of preventable disease.