In 2015, the Philippines showed some of the highest rates of vaccine confidence in the world. While many countries struggled with anti-vaccination movements, the Filipino’s compliance with childhood vaccinations was laudable.
This changed drastically when the Dengvaxia controversy erupted. The initial implementation of a school-based anti-dengue immunization program began in 2016 under President Benigno Aquino III. A year after, Sanofi, the pharmaceutical company that produced Dengvaxia, released findings that it caused an increased risk of severe dengue for initially seronegative patients. The media hyped several deaths allegedly linked to the vaccine, even as scientific assessments questioned those unproven claims.
Frenetic political noise trumped science-based views and the Dengvaxia vaccination program was eventually suspended in December 2017. While the Philippines banned it, other countries including Brazil, Singapore, Thailand and United States authorized its use based on scientific evidence that with proper screening, the vaccine can reduce severe dengue by up to 70 percent. In 2019, the World Health Organization added Dengvaxia to their model list of essential medicines recommended for use among high risk populations.
As the Dengvaxia controversy raged and received widespread coverage in mainstream and social media, vaccine confidence among Filipinos dropped catastrophically. From 93 percent of Filipinos strongly agreeing that vaccines were important in 2015, the number fell steeply to 32 percent in 2018. Compliance with childhood vaccinations like measles dropped from 88 percent in 2014 to 55 percent in 2018.
This increased vaccine hesitancy is expected to affect the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccination program. In a Social Weather Stations survey in September 2020, a third of the people surveyed demonstrated vaccine hesitancy.
With public trust in the government’s vaccination program at a low point, government must buttress the COVID-19 vaccination program by rehabilitating whatever is left of the public’s trust through consistent messaging, transparency and respect for science. Addressing the issue of vaccine hesitancy among Filipinos will be an important factor in our quest to end the COVID-19 pandemic in the country.*