What, then, do we make of the lack of awareness in India of the rotavirus vaccine’s risk of intussusception? Or of nearly 1% of PCV users reporting adverse events like bronchiolitis (an infection of the lungs), gastroenteritis (inflammation of the stomach and small intestine) and pneumonia?
Underpinning all this is NTAGI’s non-disclosure clause, where members are not allowed to talk about the process undertaken to approve a vaccine.
Non-disclosure and selective dissemination push confused parents into caginess. Nowhere was this more evident than with the MR drive in Tamil Nadu.
“Since 2017, people here have started questioning vaccination drives more openly,” says Ameer Khan, convenor of the Tamil Nadu chapter of Jan Swasthya Abhiyan (JSA), a collective of 18 national health and welfare organizations.
The questioning, in some instances, morphs into disdain when people learn of what they see as coercion on the part of the government. Such as the disbursements of the state’s Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy Maternity Benefit Scheme being linked to the number of vaccinations administered to a child.
Consequences of the complications
Then there’s the mistrust towards Big Pharma. Case in point: the 2009 human papillomavirus (HPV) “demonstration project”, in which eight girls in Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat died from complications arising from HPV vaccines made by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Merck Sharp & Dohme (MSD).
This project, overseen by the American NGO PATH, the Indian Council of Medical Research, Drug Controller General of India and the state governments in question were subjects of a 2012 writ petition in the Supreme Court. The case is ongoing.
Why is this important? Because (a) this was never a “demonstration project’, and (b) the 30,000 girls between the ages of 10 and 14 were either minorities or from backward communities, with most residing in local boarding schools.
There was no monitoring of side effects by GSK and MSD. In short, this was a clandestine clinical trial flouting the basic tenet of parental consent.
“So it wouldn’t be wrong to question why some new vaccines are in the UIP,” says JSA national convener and physician Amit Sengupta. “There are also vaccines administered here, whose efficacies were proven in other countries or other demographic groups.”
The science is sound, he says—and some of the new vaccines’ efficacy has been proven in other countries—but commercial practices are another matter.
Hyderabad-based salesman Noel D’Costa is a staunch believer in “natural hygiene” or orthopathy. To the extent that this 52-year-old is one of the staunchest vaccine disbelievers, you may come across.
“Disease is the price you pay for breaking the laws of nature.”
“Saying you need a vaccine for better immunity is like saying you should break a finger to prepare for a fracture.”
“Some of the preservatives in vaccines are toxic.”
“The recent polio controversy was no surprise. The whole system is crazy.”
“It’s a whole lifestyle. Once you give up poisonous foods and habits, you’ll realize that your immunity gets better.”
“I used to try to talk to people about it, but I’ve stopped preaching. I save my breath to cool my porridge.”
“We grew up with chickenpox and the cold. Why do you need vaccines for it now?”
Results after the analysis
Back in Mumbai, we lob D’Costa’s volleys at Dr. Gajendragadkar.
He fidgets with his wristwatch and exhales deeply before checking an invisible list off his fingers: Chickenpox may be harmless, but not so when you’re older or if you’re pregnant.
Yes, the “cold” or pneumonia vaccine is an expensive monopoly product, but senior citizens aged 65-plus may get relief from it, as will people with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). It’s also optional.
“As for the rest of it,” he concludes, “no amount of natural living is infallible. Microbes have preceded, and will outlive, humans.”