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Amid Dengvaxia uproar, media urged not to ‘let non-experts hog the spotlight’

Amid the uproar caused by the Dengvaxia controversy, media practitioners on Friday were urged to give air time to medical experts with years of experience in their fields to ensure the accuracy of their reports.

"Don't let the non-experts hog the spotlight," Dr. Clarissa David, professor at the UP College of Mass Communication, said at a forum.

"Because media, by virtue of giving them attention through coverage, confers credibility upon them which they normally wouldn't have."

She also urged reporters to verify the factual accuracy of allegations made by official sources to avoid confusing the public and prevent "political actors" from "taking over the story."

"It is factually correct that your political actor said this, so you have the quote, but there is no basis in fact for the allegation itself. And because of how journalists are always rushing to their deadline, usually the actual allegation itself is not fact-checked," David said.

"This is where it becomes kind of — wild, wild, west, hysterical in terms of the coverage because the political actors take over the story, and they're using the media to take over the story, and that becomes a political story instead of a health story," she added.

Jun Ryan Orbina of the World Health Organization - Expanded Program on Immunization (WHO-EPI) said journalists must discern "the right expert" on controversial topics because focusing on the wrong one may result in misinformation.

"In UK, Andrew Wakefield published his study linking autism to the MMR vaccine. That has long been disproven by the scientific community. He even lost his license, the very journal that published it has withdrawn that," Orbina recalled.

"Even now we hear of measles outbreaks in the UK, in Europe, it's because the anti-vaccination advocates would point to this study which has long been flawed," he said.

Referring to the controversial dengue vaccine program, David said it was the "job of the press" to decide who the expert is, especially when conflicting sides are represented by government agencies with different kinds of expertise

"The government bureaucracy is 1.7 million people: you can't expect that two agencies are always going to agree on everything. So the question is, on the issue of health, which agency should be at the forefront?" she asked.

"If you are a journalist making a decision, who is going to be the expert in a health matter: is it PAO (Public Attorney's Office) or is it DOH (Department of Health)?"

The two parties, PAO and DOH, are at loggerheads regarding the investigation on the deaths being blamed on the anti-dengue vaccine Dengvaxia. Critics, including some doctors, had questioned PAO's findings that many of the children it had examined died after they were vaccinated.

Precise information

Meanwhile, David gave some advice to the medical community in order to get its message across clearly to the public. She said scientists and doctors need not explain the details of various medical journals or studies.

"When you're being interviewed as an expert, conclusion kaagad, 'di na kailangan i-explain 'yung methodology," she said. "And then what is your advise. That's it. And don't take up too much time explaining things."

Research Institute for Tropical Medicine Surveillance officer Dr. Rowena Capistrano urged her colleagues in the health sector to fight for correct information reaching the public.

"Huwag tayong magpatalo sa mga usapin na nagpapabagsak sa sistemang ito na puwede sa kalaunan, sa susunod na henerasyon natin, ay 'yung kanilang mga karamdaman ay mga karamdaman na dapat napanagutan natin," Capistrano said.

Since panic was raised about deaths linked to Dengvaxia, medical experts across various fields worked overtime to reassure Filipinos of the safety of the Department of Health's vaccine and health programs.

Vaccine coverage dropped in 2018, with a notable decrease in areas such as Zamboanga where 60 percent of parents refused to have their children vaccinated with traditional shots.

Since December 2017, days after vaccine manufacturer Sanofi Pasteur warned of possible ill-effects of Dengvaxia on persons who never had dengue before, outbreaks of the vaccine-preventable measles have been detected in ARMM, Davao, Zamboanga, and Taguig.

Doctors fear that pertusis and diptheria, considered to be worse and more lethal than measles, can emerge in time along with diseases related to parasites as parents have also refused to have their children dewormed.

Not forgotten

While there is an acute need to push for real information, Orbina said experts and media must remember the state the public is in now regarding health matters, particularly vaccines.

"The Dengvaxia issue is a very, highly emotional issue. There's a lot of fear, there's a lot of distress, there's a lot of outrage. And we know, even in the way we relay to our family members, when emotions are high, we could not give information," he said.

"What would be the approach for now is to recognize that the fear exists and mistrust exists, and for the DOH to project itself as the doctor for the masses; someone who listens, someone who cares, someone who is there to give advise on what parents can do because they are affected," he added.

Dr. Mariel Dejessa of the DOH Epidemiology Bureau said the plight of families must not be forgotten, and that families must be reassured that the DOH's five-year monitoring plan for Dengvaxia vaccinees will be there for them.

"Ito po yung isa sa mga clamor ng mga bata, yung mga magulang nila, na ang pakiramdam nila ay napabayaan sila. Ito po yung step natin na para po mabigyan natin sila ng pansin, namo-monitor po talaga sila," Dejessa said.

Orbina noted that the medical sector must reach out to allies beyond their circles to rehabilitate the Philippines' health programs in the eye of the public.

"The message, if it's consistently being mentioned by the rest of the sectors of the society, by the allies of the Department of Health, then little by little, we gain back the public trust towards the immunization program and towards the other health programs of the government," he said. —KBK, GMA News

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