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Vaccine hesitancy still a ‘major challenge,’ experts say

PHILIPPINE STAR/ MICHAEL VARCAS

By Bronte H. Lacsamana

COMPLACENCY against the coronavirus, vaccine inequity, and doubts about whether vaccines work contribute to vaccine hesitancy — which has reduced over time in the Philippines but still should not be underestimated — said infectious disease experts at a webinar in September.

“Over the last year or so, we’ve seen improvement in trust,” said Tikki E. Pangestu, a visiting professor at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) School of Medicine and co-chair of the Asia Pacific Immunization Coalition.

Dr. Lulu C. Bravo, professor emeritus of pediatric infectious and tropical diseases at the University of the Philippines Manila (UPM), noted that vaccine hesitancy decreased in the past year, citing a Social Weather Stations survey in June that found around 45% of Filipinos were willing to get vaccinated, an increase from 30% in May.

Despite this improvement, vaccine hesitancy — defined by the World Health Organization as the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccine services — once again showed itself in Metro Manila, where anti-vax group Gising Maharlika protested against the government’s coronavirus vaccination program.

“Holding protest actions to insist on what you believe in does not make it right. It is but plain and simple acts of defiance and irresponsibility because you are putting our personnel and other civilian population at risk of being infected,” said Philippine National Police Chief Police General Guillermo Lorenzo T. Eleazar in a statement on Sunday, referring to how the group defied quarantine protocols during the protest.

Commenting on similar anti-vax movements, Mr. Pangestu said: “Vaccine hesitancy is the major challenge in achieving wide vaccine coverage globally, exacerbated by an abundance of misinformation, fake news, propaganda, and conspiracy theories.”

‘MISTRUST AND FEAR’
Vaccine hesitancy has a long-term narrative in the Philippines, according to a study by Vincen Gregory Yu, Gideon Lasco, and Clarissa C. David published this July.

The study, funded by the Department of Science and Technology (DoST), found through focus group discussions and interviews that there was “widespread mistrust and fear in communities toward both the state and health institutions following the Dengvaxia controversy in 2017,” when side effects from Sanofi Pasteur’s anti-dengue vaccine were magnified by media coverage.

This mistrust and fear were not exclusive to Dengue vaccines but applied to health programs in general, according to the study.

“Though it’s not conclusive to say that the fear and hesitancy caused by the Dengvaxia debacle remained in the psyche of Filipinos, affecting the reception of coronavirus vaccines during this pandemic, there may be reason to think so,” the study said.

Both civilian and healthcare worker participants also shared that people eventually felt the need for vaccinations again as time passed, with a measles outbreak in 2019 being a turning point.

This was echoed by UPM’s Dr. Bravo at the September webinar, where she shared from experience that the rollout of coronavirus vaccines reduced vaccine hesitancy.

To move forward, NUS’s Mr. Pangestu recommended continuous information and education campaigns: “Vaccine hesitancy is a spectrum. The group in the middle is hesitant. Ultimately, they will refuse, delay, or eventually accept — that’s the group we need to focus on.”

The DoST-funded study also pointed out the need for “responsible journalism, well-calibrated crisis communications, and a people-centered health paradigm.” — with Patricia B. Mirasol

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