The Duchess of Cambridge is about to give birth in London. The felicitous news follows a sudden drop in the value of the Indian rupee against the US dollar. Are the two events related? Surely they must be, one followed the other. Can a connection be established? Not definitively but, who can say, maybe the news of the rupee’s fate on international markets was such a shock that the Duchess went into labour or maybe there was an Indian on her staff who caused her to become unsettled?
This is roughly the logic applied by anti-vaccine activists to infant deaths following immunisation with the pentavalent vaccine. This five-in-one vaccine combines the long-established diptheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTP) vaccine with two new elements that protect against hepatitis B and Hib pneumonia, an often-fatal infection of the lungs.
Too many children die in India and because so many die, some will die shortly after receiving a vaccine. Is there a connection between receiving the vaccine and a child dying? Almost every expert in the world will tell you that there is not, at least in the cases of these pentavalent vaccines. The vaccines used in India have been used around the world for many years and, as in India, there have sometimes been tragic coincidental deaths. There has never been any credible suggestion of a causal link which is why the World Health Organization told Indians that there had been no “Adverse Effects Following Immunisation” reported with the pentavalent vaccine: by definition an adverse event is an event caused by the vaccine.
The WHO’s life-saving advice has apparently led Dr Jacob Puliyel, a long-standing anti-vaccine maverick, to write an editorial in the Indian Journal of Medical Ethics accusing the WHO of promoting the pentavalent vaccine by using false claims. We haven’t yet read Dr Puliyel’s piece (although it will probably be depressingly familiar) but the editorial is reported in today’s First Post.
The sad truth is that India adopts new vaccines much more slowly than other developing countries. In part because of this foot dragging, India accounts for a quarter of child deaths in the world. Two thirds of these deaths are classed as preventable. Earlier this year, Dr Vishwajeet Kumar said of this terrible death toll, “ideologically-motivated attempts questioning vaccine safety and efficacy are partly responsible.” That really is an ethical problem — to read more look at Dr Kumar’s excellent editorial in the Hindustan Times. It appeared in April.