Of medical nightmares: A biopsy of the Philippine anti-vaxx sentiment

Long ago, getting flu shots from the doctor only brought tears to our eyes, but now a new resistance to vaccines is afoot —and this time it’s more dangerous than childish tantrums.


You won’t feel a thing

Every child’s worst nightmare is a looming figure in a pristine white coat with latex gloves equipped with their M.D. certification on their equally spotless white walls. As bad as the fear of medical professionals can get, nothing beats the teeth-chattering, anxiety-inducing feeling that kids experience upon seeing the needle resting on the doctor’s hands. Yet, they’re necessary: vaccines function as shields against diseases. By receiving a weaker form of the virus, our bodies learn how to fight against these microbes—like training before the real battle—by creating antibodies or chemical defenses that help us become immune to the illness in its final form.

Recently, however, this seemingly innocent, childish fear of trips to the hospital has ballooned into a growing public health concern. Attached to this is a common perception of doctors only as disease-treaters, rather than as partners in the prevention of said illnesses. Licensed physician Phil* from the Veterans Memorial Medical Center explains, “The public does not understand prevention. As Filipinos, we culturally only go to the doctor when we are sick.”

Perhaps our stubbornness isn’t the only thing to blame—we might be swamped with work, are scared of diagnosis, or are lacking in financial resources for frequent consultations. We wait for our bodies to succumb even though the warning signs have been flashing since the beginning. In the end, doctors are as dismayed as we are upon finding a patient wracked with sickness from a condition that could have been easily prevented. Common health problems often devolve into gravely compromising situations that prove difficult to remedy; the propagating anti-vaccine sentiment is no different with the many lives unnecessarily being put at risk.


Tracing an epidemic

Already at war with enemies in the form of antibiotic resistance, cancer, and infectious diseases, local healthcare professionals find themselves confronting another barricade in their task of healing people—the very people they’re trying to help. Doctor-patient relations seem to have worsened in this emerging era of distrust and misinformation, from the unfortunate Dengvaxia mishap to the current measles outbreak.

With public figures attributing the terrifyingly high number of deaths to the dengue vaccine, many—even the learned among us—interpreted this to be a cause-and-effect affair. From one ear to the next, the controversy has only fueled Filipinos with more reasons to avoid this medical prickle of pain, lest they end up among the sad mortality statistics of unreliable public health services.

Dr. Phil laments, “We have people in power telling the masses that you can die from vaccination…[It’s] really not true. Truth is, you can get even more sick if you don’t [get yourself vaccinated].”  He adds that Dengvaxia was a case of a vaccine being released too early to the public without completing proper testing, severely affecting its credibility of being safe for use. Rather than the vaccine itself, an abundance of factors such as giving a weak virus to a mildly sick person may have also been the culprit for causing such lethal health complications.

With scientific checkpoints in place, biomedical bibles such as the Good Clinical Practice—an international set of guidelines—ensure that clinical trials test the quality of vaccines before they can be applied in mainstream practice. Medical professionals like Dr. Lily Cabuling adhere to this framework of “evidence-based medicine”, but others may not be so quick to abandon their own beliefs regardless of the available scientific proof.

Dr. Cabuling, the Director of the University’s Health Services Office, recounts launching an immunization program against the Human Papillomavirus infection some 15 years ago, only to encounter a vaccine naysayer using online sources to discredit the initiative. She further justifies, “If we have researches na would validate yung claims ng manufacturer (of the vaccine or medication), then we go for it.”

In-depth study and experimentation are steps that cannot be bypassed, but non-experts in the field are often misled by focusing on only the outcomes, especially the rare instances where the treatment turns out to be ineffective, or worse, harmful. To think that the doubts have persisted for so long, and perhaps have even been aggravated in recent times, is telling of the reputation of medicine in local society. The ordinary citizen’s guard is up—wary even of the vaccines that have long been tested and proven to be effective.



Dangerous notions

Even though lifetime immunity to measles is close to guaranteed with only two doses of the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine—an initial injection plus a booster shot—the soaring measles infection rate is ringing alarm bells in several regions throughout the country.

Door-to-door efforts and information dissemination campaigns have been initiated, but public health officials can force little if the intended recipients themselves reject the idea of being vaccinated. Like an emergency room patient requiring immediate attention, perhaps these incidents represent not only mounting fear, but also a lingering misunderstanding about the medical and technological support needed for the human body to fight off diseases.

As of writing, the Department of Health (DOH) has also recently proposed a “no vaccination, no enrollment” policy, a plea for parents to vaccinate their own children amid the growing public distrust. Although this raises many questions about the limit and ethical implications of respecting individual choice and autonomy, the suggested course of action shows just how desperate the local government is becoming—and the lengths medical personnel are willing to go to contain the outbreak and prevent more deadly consequences.

According to Dr. Phil, “Communicable (contagious) diseases need to be treated as a community,” and he understands that public officials may very well be forced to intervene with drastic measures. When a contagious disease like measles gets transmitted as quickly as the misinformed opinions that come with it, populated communities stand to be the most vulnerable to these public health crises.

For healthcare providers, it is a matter of prioritizing the collective, weighing the risks threatening the larger society against individual needs. Dr. Phil asserts, “We need good leaders who will make good decisions for all, advocating for both individual and group rights to treatment.”

With the resolute efforts of DOH and more people scrambling to get vaccinated, we can only hope for the situation to get better before it spirals into a medical nightmare gone tragically out of hand.

*Names with asterisks (*) are pseudonyms.

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