Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Population

POPULATION-PHILIPPINES: Tiff Over Vaccine Now War Over Abortion

Johanna Son

MANILA, Jul 5 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.”

Pro-life Philippines says it got reports from a pro-life group in Mexico saying tests had detected traces of human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG), which supposedly induces abortion, in the anti- tetanus vaccine. The group has since presented 30 women who said they experienced bleeding and abortion-inducing effects.

Pro-lifers had tests done in Manila hospitals, but the opposing sides still cannot agree.

Conservatives say supposed traces of “HCG-like” substances prove their point, but health experts say the substance cannot be isolated. HCG, they say, does not induce abortion and is the hormone responsible for the foetus’s survival in early pregnancy.

WHO’s Western Pacific office, based in Manila, added that the confusion about the tetanus toxoid vaccine may be due to research into an experimental contraceptive substance that acts against HCG and is being tested in Sweden. But the substance does not contain tetanus toxoid.

Last week, the Philippine health department accepted an offer by the U.S. National Institute of Health to retest the vaccine and to examine blood extracted from alleged victims.

But some of the damage may already have been done, observers say. The anti-tetanus immunisation set for the Mar. 15 National Immunisation Day was suspended after Pro-life secured a temporary restraining order from a court.

Acting Health Secretary Jaime Galvez Tan warns the tetanus scare “has greatly affected not only immunisation of women but also child immunisation in the Philippines”.

He estimated that from 1986 to 1990, immunisation has averted 15,300 cases of neonatal tetanus. “Let us not be misled by distortions of medical facts,” Tan added.

Some 2,000 to 3,000 Filipino newborns die from tetanus each year. WHO warns that because up to five million women were not immunised this year, 300 to 400 more babies will contract tetanus — and likely die.

WHO says tetanus toxoid coverage during the 1995 national immunisation days has already fallen by 45 percent compared to 1994, the sharpest drops occurring among high-risk women in densely populated, poor urban areas.

Danguilan says many people apparently stayed away from health department’s popular immunisation programmes because they value the Church’s standing and influence.

“They are creating mass hysteria in a populace that does not have much information about this,” she adds. “If you said something like this in a country like Sweden, nobody would believe you.”

Danguilan suspects the battle is not about facts or the vaccine itself, but part of a Church-led campaign against the government’s population policies and the popularity of former health secretary Juan Flavier.

“This is highly political,” she observes. “They are using even the pulpit.” The anti-tetanus scare, notes Danguilan, erupted just before the May polls where Flavier won a Senate seat.

The Church was believed to have dissuaded its flock from voting for Flavier, who is identified with the promotion of contraceptives and whom the Church criticised during the run-up to the Cairo conference on population last year.

Sr. Verzosa says the vaccine controversy is based on genuine concern, but confirms pro-life groups’ dislike for Flavier. “It was Flavier who decided it and whoever is handling it and those kinds of policies we don’t want in that position,” she says.

Pro-life Philippines found the anti-tetanus vaccinations worrisome also after health officials “started vaccinating teenagers without their consent and were even going house to house”, says Sr Verzosa.

According to the WHO, though, the “misinformation campaign” about the anti-tetanus vaccine is just about “absurd claims” that threatens one of the world’s most successful immunisation programmes.

 
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