A recently introduced five-in-one vaccine against diphtheria, pneumonia, tetanus, hepatitis B and Hib meningitis has once again exposed interests other than health concerns that guide the introduction of vaccines. Doctors on condition of anonymity said pressure from international pharmaceutical lobbies like the GAVI alliance is behind the introduction of the pentavalent vaccine without a proper investigation into how safe it is. Last week, an infant died in Rohtak after being administered the vaccine, while 4 infants have died in three weeks in Kerala.
In fact, there is pressure to introduce three more vaccines immediately which includes the HPV vaccine to prevent cervical cancer which was discontinued in 2010 after 6 deaths in Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat reported during its trial.
The penatavalent vaccine has already caused deaths in countries like Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Vietnam. It has been discontinued in Vietnam after three deaths in November 2012.
“Even one death should be cause for proper investigation before it is introduced on a large scale,” says Ritu Priya of the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health at the JNU. “The media is reporting the deaths as isolated cases for fear of denting the image of the programme.”, a pediatrician who didn’t want to be named said.
What is also important in this case is that doctors say the disease it is administered for is treatable by antibiotics. A Minz study shows that Hib meningitis has only 10% mortality rate. It further calculates that considering the risks associated with the vaccine, what its use means is that we risk “3125 vaccine deaths” just to “prevent 175 deaths”.
A group of academics, doctors and teachers of public health have now written a letter — making each death count” to the government expressing their concern. The letter says these cases should be investigated and seen in a comprehensive manner to see the “underlying pattern and act if needed to protect lives”. Amitav Bannerjee, of DY Patil Medical College in Poona who has signed the letter says, “It is prudent that the use of the vaccine be withheld till we have more evidence.”
Jacob Puliyel, pediatrician at St Stephens Hospital and a member of the NTAGI says, “We wanted to make them aware of the problem through the letter.” The vaccine was first introduced only in Kerala and Tamil Nadu in 2011 after the National Technical Advisory group on Immunisation expressed concerns regarding its safety.