A Manila court ordered the Department of Health (DOH) not to administer an anti-tetanus vaccine that pro-life groups claim is abortifacient during the National Immunization Drive held March 15.
Judge William Bayhon of Branch 23 of the Manila Regional Trial Court issued the temporary restraining order March 14.
The petition for the restraining order was filed by Pro-life Philippines, the Manila Archdiocesan Council of the Laity, the Catholic Women´s Legal League and the Families for Families International Foundation.
The groups charged that the tetanus toxoid vaccine used by the DOH contains human chorionic gonadotrophin (HCG), a hormone which can cause abortion.
HCG helps maintain pregnancy, and levels usually increase during pregnancy, according to the World Health Organization and other health agencies.
Excessive levels of HCG, however, can cause the body to produce anti-HCG, which has the reverse effect and acts to terminate a pregnancy.
Pro-life groups also claimed that introducing HCG into the body of a woman who is not pregnant will produce antibodies that will attack the HCG produced when she gets pregnant, thus causing termination of the pregnancy.
"Injection of HCG in the form and manner given to women is not a contraceptive, but an abortifacient. It induces abortion not once, but every time a woman conceives," they said in their petition.
Most of the health officials in local government units in Manila and its neighboring towns and cities interviewed by UCA News said they stopped giving the tetanus vaccines upon learning of the restraining order.
They also noted a low turn-out among children supposed to be given the oral polio vaccine, officially the prime target of the immunization drive.
"The parents must have thought that the whole immunization program was stopped by the court," Doctor Lourdes Salud, city health officer of Manila, told UCA News March 15.
According to published reports, though, health officials in several central Philippine provinces said they had no cause not to administer the tetanus vaccine, since they did not receive an official copy of the court order.
Acting Health Secretary Jaime Galvez-Tan, who visited Iloilo province March 15, told reporters in Manila that some government officials moved their immunization centers to municipal halls instead of health centers.
The court order specifically prohibited the administration of the vaccine in village health centers and public hospitals, the normal immunization sites.
While the petitioners hailed the court order, DOH officials warned the move could trigger a renewed outbreak of neonatal tetanus.
The National Immunization Drive, which is on its last phase after a highly successful three-year campaign, was primarily aimed to eradicate polio virus in the Philippines, according to Doctor Otella Costales, the program manager.
Aside from the free polio vaccines, health personnel also administer vaccines against measles and other childhood diseases, she added.
As mothers usually accompany their children, the DOH also gave out tetanus toxoid because of the high incidence of cases and deaths due to neonatal tetanus, usually acquired during unhygienic births, Costales said.
After pro-life groups first spoke out against the vaccine in February, the DOH and World Health Organization assured the vaccine is not abortifacient.
Tan said it contains no HCG and has been used since 1983 with no adverse reactions such as abortion having been reported.
In their court petition, pro-life groups said tests conducted on vaccine samples at the nuclear medicine department of the Makati Medical Center, a prestigious private hospital, revealed HCG levels as high as seven milli-international units per cubic centimeter.
In February, Doctor Edmundo Villacorta, head of the nuclear medicine department, confirmed to UCA News that he had tested samples of the vaccine, but not as an official research undertaking of the medical center.
"We found in three out of six vials a small amount of HCG-like substances, which is considered insignificant," he said, noting the three vials contained up to seven milli-international units of the substances per cubic centimeter.
He said it would have been significant if the amounts found were in the hundreds or thousands of units per cubic centimeter.