Vacc Ka Takot? | Health experts echo “WALANG LIGTAS kung Hindi LAHAT TAYO LIGTAS”

By Angela Vanessa Manuel & Sean Gere Pascual

With the goal of battling vaccine fear with increased awareness and inspired action, “Vacc Ka Takot?,” a two-day vaccine masterclass hosted by AIESEC University of the Philippines Manila (UPM) and Little Hands: Isko with United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), successfully culminated last July 12. In the two-part event, the youth were equipped with science-backed and factual knowledge in order to increase their health literacy, dismiss their fears and misconceptions of the COVID-19 vaccines, and encourage them to be part of the solution to the pandemic.

The integral role of vaccines

The first day of the masterclass contained two sessions that centered on explaining why vaccines are safe, the side effects of immunization, and the need for health education and promotion of immunization to the community. The first session, led by Dr. Sharon Yvette Villanueva, a professor and the college secretary of the College of Public Health, focused on the Vaccine Basics based on a pharmacological perspective.

Dr. Villanueva talked about the background of immunity by discussing the different barriers of protection, as well as the different kinds of immune response of the body. She then reiterated the importance of vaccines by emphasizing that even though the body produces antibodies naturally, this does not guarantee long-term protection. Hence, vaccination is a necessary tool to reproduce natural infection so that an individual’s body can recognize and get used to a particular antigen.

She then proceeded to answer the question, why does the public need to get vaccinated, by emphasizing that vaccines protect not only individuals but also communities. It also lessens the impact, mobility and mortality of the virus, promotes health, saves lives and costs, as well as refrain families from the dangers of expensive bills and productivity loss.

To further explain the different vaccine platforms in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Villanueva talked about the advantages and disadvantages of each vaccine platform. Starting from Whole Virus Vaccines which are either Inactivated vaccines or bacteria that are killed through chemical means, heat or radiation, Live attenuated vaccines or living but weakened versions of the bacterium, or viral vector vaccine which makes use of a safe virus to introduce some parts of the bacterium or virus in order to stimulate the host’s immune response without causing illness.

Whole Virus vaccines are used in Polio, rabies, and Hepatitis A vaccines. Sinopharm and Sinovac manufactured COVID-19 vaccines also use the same technology.

Meanwhile, Dr. Villanueva mentioned that Aztrazenica is an example of Non-replicating Viral Vector Vaccine, which uses a vector to deliver the component of virus inorder for the cells to produce a large number of antigens to stimulate the immune system. Lastly, Pfizer was mentioned as an example of an mRNA vaccine which uses no live component of the virus on the said vaccine. All this information is taken after Dr. Villanueva disclaimed that she is in no way promoting a particular vaccine and is no way related to the mentioned vaccine brands.

The second session, meanwhile, led by Dr. Gene Nisperos, the Vice Chief of the Community-Oriented Medical Education Unit, Department of Family and Community of the College of Medicine, UPM, focused on the topic about Vaccines and Public Health and discussed why an individual should be vaccinated. Dr. Nisperos asserted that although vaccines alone is not the solution in curing diseases, vaccines have a specific role in disease prevention.

Dr. Nisperos enumerated the reasons as to why one should choose to be vaccinated. First, because everyone needs rigid protection. Washing of hands, wearing masks, and practicing social distancing has been done for more than a year and a half but these may not be enough with the present conditions.

Second, although the economy is slowly re-opening without the basic requisites, the nation still needs to make sure that the environment is safe.

Third, as the number of unprotected people increases, the virus also undergoes continuous mutation. He mentioned that as the people find ways to protect themselves, the virus will also find ways to attack the population.

Finally, because of the illed healthcare system of the country. He said that the pandemic did not introduce, rather it just exacerbated, the existing socio-economic ills of the nation.

Dr. Nisperos then ended the session by reiterating the principle of vaccines and preventive medicine, “Walang Ligtas Kung Hindi Lahat Tayo Ligtas.” He urged the youth to understand vaccines to dismiss the fear of vaccines in their communities, do their part in educating people, and recognize the specific role vaccines play in disease prevention and community protection.

The continuing journey to herd immunity

The second and final day of the masterclass focused on the youth’s role and responsibilities in achieving herd immunity. The first session, titled “Paano ko makukuha ang mga bakuna?,” aimed to increase awareness and tackle the accessibility of the current vaccination programs implemented in the country. Presented by Dr. Beverly Lorraine Ho, Director for Health Promotion Bureau and for Disease Prevention and Control Bureau of the Department of Health (DOH), she emphasized that the journey to herd immunity is a whole-of-government and whole-of-society effort, not just of the health sector.

In order to improve the success of these efforts, personal responsibilities and shared responsibilities should coexist. She recalled that pre-pandemic, health agencies in the country usually inoculate two million people with vaccines for different purposes every year. Now, in order to achieve herd immunity, they are tasked to do 35 times more than usual.

At first, Dr. Ho shed light on the issue of vaccine supply in the country, claiming that 80% of the total global supply has gone to rich countries. The priority list of the vaccine rollout in the country, with the medical frontliners, senior citizens, and people with comorbidities assigned to A1, A2, and A3 respectively due to the high death rates, or the probability of dying if infected by the virus, previous cases accounted for, was done in the context of scarcity. She then reiterated that these priority groups still exist for two main reasons — one is to prioritize the healthcare system, to prevent the collapse of the system once a surge of COVID-19 cases occur, and two is to prevent deaths.

After stating the reason behind it, she assured the public that vaccine supplies will be less of an issue now as beginning this month, more and more doses of different COVID-19 vaccines are set to arrive in the country.

Subsequently, she expounded that people should not fear being vaccinated as the DOH provided standards for implementation which each local government units (LGUs) must abide in carrying out the rollout. In addition, all vaccination facilities are linked to higher level health facilities which ensures the public that their needs will be attended to if ever they experience the side effects of the vaccine. As of writing, less than 2% of vaccinees have reported adverse reactions.

Dr. Ho also advised those who are experiencing side effects of the vaccine to visit the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) website and report reactions online as this information can help health professionals learn more about COVID-19.

According to her, the most important step to take before getting vaccinated is to always read about the latest news about vaccination and the processes of vaccine rollout in their respective LGUs.

Meanwhile, during the second session, titled “Paano ako magiging bahagi ng solusyon?,” Samuel Madriaga addressed what steps the youth can take in order to alleviate vaccine hesitancy in their communities. As the Chief Executive and Director for Health Policy of the Alliance of Public Health Advocates (ALPHA), Madriaga shared his experience how they engaged the youth in this journey in combating the public health crisis.

He first dwelled on the roots of vaccine hesitancy, stating that despite having 94% of Filipino worried about possible COVID-19 infection, there are six out of 10 Filipinos who do not want to be vaccinated. Furthermore, he pointed out that this issue started after the Dengvaxia controversy, where Sanofi Pasteur’s Dengvaxia, a dengue fever vaccine, was found to increase the risk of disease severity for some people who had received it. According to the Vaccine Confidence Project, in 2015, a year before the rollout of Dengvaxia, the Philippines had a 93% vaccine confidence rate, but it significantly dropped to 32% in 2018.

In addition to the low confidence in vaccines, Madriaga mentioned that poor confidence in governing institutions and the adverse side effects of the vaccines also make FIlipino hesitant to get inoculated. He explained that most Filipinos are worried about the capacity of the state to shoulder their medical expenses in case they experience these side effects.

The lack of contextualized and concrete information about the vaccine also worries Filipinos. The abundance of westernized information alongside the lack of available locally acquired information result in the public’s poor vaccine literacy. With this, Madriaga took the opportunity to encourage the youth to carry out their responsibility to laymanize it and translate it to a language FIlipinos can understand.

Stating that the vaccine hesitancy issue is both multifactorial and multifaceted, and personal and contextual, he said that the youth can initiate and sustain active conversations for health at home and in their communities in order to better address the problem. In doing so, they will also bridge the gap between the people and the health information necessary. They should also practice evidence-based dissemination of information to the public.

He concluded his talk by empowering the youth to participate, develop, and co-create inclusive solutions for the masses through building coalitions and partnerships with different health initiatives fighting for the same goal of promoting effective health policies.

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