Controversy flared up anew between the Philippine Department of Health (DOH) and Church groups after the health secretary blamed the latter for the rising incidence of measles in the country this year.
In a statement issued June 12, Health Secretary Jaime Galvez-Tan attributed a rise of over 50 percent in the number of measles cases, including 95 deaths, to religious groups´ interference in the government´s immunization program.
Tan was referring to the furor Church and pro-life groups raised by claiming the tetanus toxoid vaccine used by the DOH causes abortions.
A recent report documents 1,672 admissions of measles cases to government hospitals this year compared to only 1,088 over the same period last year.
The campaign against the tetanus vaccine resulted in the failure of the March 15 national immunization day (NID) that aimed to immunize women and children against tetanus, polio and measles, Tan said.
However, Pro-Life Philippines, which led the campaign, rebutted Tan´s charge, saying DOH´s "inefficiency" caused the increase in measles cases.
Pro-Life Philippines head Good Shepherd Sister Pilar Versoza said the tetanus toxoid issue has nothing to do with the increase.
"Why blame us for their inefficiency? How could they be so sure that the cases were due to the tetanus toxoid issue?" she told UCA News June 12.
Versoza suggested the health department improve the delivery of health services instead of passing on the blame for its failures. She added that government health services are not accessible to many people in rural areas.
The DOH Field Epidemiology Training Program partly blamed the increase in both measles cases and deaths to the "refusal of some ethnic communities and religious groups to submit their children for immunization."
The department´s Maternal and Child Health Service, though, directly attributed the rise to the "tetanus toxoid scare which affected the 1995 NID."
The immunization days, begun by Tan´s predecessor and now Senator-elect Juan Flavier, had been hailed as exceeding their targets over the last few years.
In March, however, pro-life and Church groups obtained a restraining order from a Manila court prohibiting the DOH from administering the tetanus toxoid during the most recent NID.
The DOH claims the vaccine, administered to women of reproductive age, was intended to save thousands of children from dying of neonatal tetanus shortly after delivery, especially when mothers give birth at home attended by only a midwife, paramedic or traditional medicine practitioners.
Although the court order only covered the administration of the anti-tetanus vaccine, the DOH said the immunization program was jeopardized because the health department gives various vaccines simultaneously during the NIDs.
Since many mothers did not show up, children who should have been brought for immunization against diseases such as measles, diphtheria, pertussis and others did not receive the vaccines, the DOH said.
Meanwhile, another claim has been laid against the tetanus toxoid vaccine.
Victoria Sarlatan, 36, and a mother of five, was administered the vaccine Feb. 15 by a DOH midwife in a health center in Bugayong village, Binalonan town, 200 kilometers northwest of Manila in Pangasinan province.
Immediately after the injection, Sarlatan, now comatose with meningitis and on life support, experienced nerve-tingling pain and numbness in her shoulder, armpit and at the back of her head, her husband, Eliseo, said.
Her husband blamed her condition on the tetanus toxoid vaccine and sought legal assistance in filing a case against the DOH.
However, Doctor Maria Socorro Florendo, a neurologist at Baguio General Hospital and Medical Center where Sarlatan is being treated, found no relation between the tetanus toxoid injection and the patient´s current condition.
Neither does the vaccine aggravate meningitis, Florendo told UCA News June 1. "At worst, it can only cause nerve involvement such as neuritis or nerve inflammation," she said.