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EDITORIAL - The case for vaccination

Two centuries after the discovery of vaccine, immunization has saved an estimated nine million lives annually. One disease has been eradicated by vaccines: smallpox. Global health experts are hoping that polio will be next.

Polio and smallpox are among seven major human diseases brought under control by vaccines. The others are diphtheria, neonatal tetanus, yellow fever, whooping cough and measles. Vaccines have also been developed for tuberculosis, hepatitis B, malaria and other parasitic infections, HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases as well as acute respiratory infections.

The vaccines work best when administered early in life. Many have been available for decades, but their use became widespread in low-income countries only in recent years, as part of efforts to promote universal public health. Through vaccines, millions of lives have been saved and millions of others have avoided a life of debilitation.

Authorities must make these matters clear to those who are now reportedly stopping their children from participating in government immunization programs administered in schools. The concern arises from the controversy over Dengvaxia, the first commercially available vaccine against dengue, which has been administered to about 800,000 school children all over the Philippines.

Dengvaxia manufacturer Sanofi Pasteur warned that its continuing tests showed that the vaccine works mainly on those with a history of dengue. Those without previous infection risk more severe symptoms and other side effects, according to the pharmaceutical giant.

Several children who received Dengvaxia have since died of dengue, but health experts have yet to establish conclusively a direct link between the deaths and the vaccine. A hyperventilating public attorney has further stoked public fears and confusion, with autopsies on some of the fatalities conducted by a person lacking the required expertise.

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Public health officials have expressed concern that the controversy has started hampering other government immunization programs, which could deprive many children of reliable life-saving vaccines. The government must launch an aggressive campaign to dispel such fears. Until facts are established, the anti-dengue vaccination program can be put on hold. But other immunization campaigns must proceed. It’s no exaggeration to say that it could mean the difference between life and death.

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