Science Reporting and the Dengvaxia Drama

Here is why it is important to advocate for real science journalism in local media

The drama over Dengvaxia has moved quickly to Act 2, with many people getting fixated on the number of children who have died from the vaccine. Children’s deaths have emotional wallop which makes them easy to use for political ends or for media ratings – all in the pretext of promoting public welfare.

But establishing the real cause of death of Dengvaxia-vaccinated children is much more complicated. Clinical epidemiologists follow rigorous forensic and scientific protocols to conclude, beyond reasonable doubt, that the Dengvaxia vaccine was the cause of death and not some other. Sorting this out takes time. After all, the 870,000 pupils who were vaccinated (the case group) are still being monitored. A control group may also have to be studied. 

But the real and immediate issues for me are: Was there undue haste in the approval of Dengvaxia? Why? Was there corruption in the purchase of Dengvaxia? Can blame on such corrupt practices be assigned to officials involved? Was any budget on Dengvaxia ever spent during the prohibited election period of six months before the May 2016 presidential election?

These are the crucial issues. Whether children died or not is not the central point. A civil or criminal liability would still exist even if there were zero deaths, not only because children’s lives were unduly endangered but also because PHP 3.5 billion of public money was spent on a vaccine of uncertain safety at the time it was introduced in such massive scale.

Everyone, therefore, is enjoined to stop stoking people's emotional response on children's deaths. Ratings-hungry media companies and election-oriented politicians tend to score points with deaths, whether they are verified as having been caused by Dengvaxia or not. But people should know better.

And that is why it is important to advocate at this point for real science journalism in local media. Politicians will always be politicking, but the adverse consequences of such political actions can be diminished if real science journalists were available to analyze and disseminate without bias these complicated social issues.

About the Author
Mr. Oscar F. Picazo is a retired specialist in health systems, health economics, and social policy. He has worked in 24 countries for the World Bank, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and as an independent consultant. He returned to the Philippines in 2009 and became a senior research consultant for the Philippine Institute of Development Studies.
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