Department taken aback by opposition to initiative

The Health Department has been taken aback by the opposition brewing in many parts of the State as well as in the social media regarding the rubella vaccination initiative launched by the government.

Weary of having to take flak over public health initiatives, even the ones as innocuous as once-a-week iron and folic acid (IFA) supplement to schoolchildren, the Health Department has decided not to force anyone to take rubella vaccination.

Talks with PTAs

“We hold discussions with school PTAs and teachers and explain the rationale of the vaccination before seeking to fix a day for administering rubella. On vaccination day, any child who says she does not want to be vaccinated is left alone,” N. Sreedhar, Additional Director of Health Services (Health and Family Welfare), said.

It is an emerging trend in the State to oppose any public health initiative blindly, spinning conspiracy theories about multinational pharma companies taking the government for a ride, forcing “unwanted vaccines” on the public, a senior paediatrician in the State said, on condition of anonymity.

“One of the reasons why Kerala surged ahead of the other States in the health sector is the manner in which we accepted and implemented immunisation programmes, protecting our children against all vaccine-preventable diseases. It is quite worrying that the public is increasingly losing confidence in government-led health initiatives, while even the expensive and optional vaccines pushed by many private sector hospitals are accepted unquestioningly,” he added.

However, a section of paediatricians pointed out that the Health and Social Justice Departments could have devised a better strategy and gone for wider awareness campaigns on the science behind the rubella vaccination for adolescent girls.

Vaccinating infants with the MMR (Mumps-Measles-Rubella) vaccine and administering rubella vaccine to adolescent girls who may not have been given the MMR vaccine in their infancy, is a globally accepted strategy to eliminate measles deaths and congenital rubella syndrome (CRS).

Devastating

Rubella is a mild and self-limiting viral infection. But it can leave devastating consequences if a young woman is exposed to the virus during pregnancy, especially during the first trimester. Babies exposed to the virus are born with a cluster of severe congenital deformities, known as the CRS.

Strangely, the MMR vaccine is still not part of the national immunisation schedule, even though it is being administered to infants in Kerala in the private sector for the past 15 years or more.

Public health professionals have been demanding for a long time that the State needs to introduce the MMR vaccine for infants and the rubella vaccine for adolescent girls to prevent the CRS.

Thus, when an opportunity to introduce the MMR and rubella vaccines came up, with the Social Justice Department offering to find funding for the programme under the State Initiative on Disabilities, it was whole-heartedly welcomed by all health professionals.

Accepted strategy

“MMR vaccination for infants at 18 months is the accepted strategy for preventing both measles and rubella. But we need to vaccinate adolescent girls with monovalent rubella vaccine as whole generations of them have grown up without the protection of the MMR vaccine. We will have to give rubella vaccination to young girls for 10 or 12 years before we can phase it off because we have just introduced the MMR vaccine in our immunisation schedule,” a senior health official said.

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