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PHILIPPINES: Nun Charges Tetanus Vaccine Contains Abortion Agent

Johanna Son

MANILA, Jul 7 1995 (IPS) - An unlikely war over abortion and population control is raging in the Philippines, after a tiff over an anti- tetanus vaccine erupted into a full-blown battle between health officials and conservative groups.

The controversy shows how sensitive the issue of population and abortion can be in this mainly Roman Catholic country.

For years millions of Filipino women of child-bearing age from 15 to 44 years old have been receiving anti-tetanus vaccines as part of the Philippines’ campaign to prevent tetanus in mothers as well as to curb the sizeable incidence of tetanus in newborns.

Tetanus of the newborn remains a problem in the Philippines, where two-thirds of women give birth at home. Local midwives often use unsanitary household or bamboo knives to severe the mother’s umbilical cord, introducing tetanus to healthy newborns who almost always die in a few days.

Since the immunisation drive was stepped up in 1990, the number of babies affected by tetanus has fallen from over 25 a day in the mid-eighties to four today.

But the programme, which uses vaccines procured by the United Nations’ Children’s Fund (UNICEF), is now at risk after pro-life groups recently claimed the vaccines are laced with a hormone that causes abortion.

Says Roman Catholic nun Sr. Pilar Verzosa of “Pro-life Philippines”: “We are not against tetanus vaccination, but we are questioning whether it is pure anti-tetanus vaccine or has other elements. This is connected with population control.”

But if the group believes the government is surreptitiously trying to make women infertile or imposing population control, health activists accuse conservative groups of raising a false bogey, addressing abortion the wrong way and harming a beneficial health programme in the process.

“The vaccine has been used for more than 50 years in many countries and is one of the basics in immunisation,” says health expert Dr. Marilen Danguilan.

The Department of Health notes no unusual increase in abortions since 1990, the year the anti-tetanus drive was accelerated. Previous to that, anti-tetanus vaccination in the country has been going on since 1983.

Assurances from the World Health Organisation (WHO), which says the vaccine is used in over 140 countries, have not allayed all fears. It said in a statement: “Tetanus toxoid does not have a contraceptive effect or contain any hormones. The vaccine contains no abortifacients.”

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