It may have looked like a routine injection – the kind administered on a daily basis at clinics around the world – but, in fact, it was a big moment for public health.
Launching the world’s first dengue vaccine
The Philippines made history last month by delivering the first-ever dengue vaccine. “We are very proud,” says Dr Sally Gatchalian, President of the Pediatric Infectious Disease Society of the Philippines. “Doctors and patients have been waiting a long time for this vaccine and are very happy to have a new tool for preventing the disease.”
For now, the vaccine is only available to patients attending private clinics in The Philippines but Dr Gatchalian expects the government to make it available to nine-year-old school children from April in the three regions worst affected by dengue.
“Dengue fever is hyperendemic in our country, and the number of cases has been growing,” she says. “Being diagnosed with dengue is frightening for patients. When I have to tell a 10-year-old child that they have dengue they ask me if they will die – it is seen as a severe disease so parents are already asking me about the new vaccine.”
New tool against dengue for doctors
The availability of the dengue vaccine is a game-changer for doctors. Instead of treating dengue symptoms, they can now play an active role in prevention.
“Physicians always think about prevention; about protecting their patients,” says Dr Gatchalian. “We would rather provide protection to outpatients than treat their symptoms when they are admitted to hospital with dengue fever.”
She says that, until now, the only preventative measure available was to advise people on vector control. The availability of a vaccine, combined with vector control, has the potential to decrease the incidence of the disease, according to Dr Gatchalian. However, she noted that it may take some years to make a significant dent in national incidence rates because the vaccine is not yet available nationwide for the National Immunization Program.
Awareness of the vaccine is already strong thanks to media coverage surrounding the launch of the vaccine and strong interest among doctors attending medical conferences.
For the public and the medical community alike, the fact that patients in The Philippines took part in clinical trials for the vaccine is a major plus.
“I think that because children from our country participated in the trials, there is a sense of ownership – it makes the vaccine relevant to the public,” says Dr Gatchalian. “For my colleagues who were involved with the research from the start, it is a proud moment. We are all happy and thankful.”
Dengue can affect everyone
As a leading pediatrician, Dr Gatchalian has treated countless children with dengue fever. But, like many other parents in The Philippines, she has her own personal story to tell.
When her daughter, Gayle, was five years old she developed a fever after being bitten by a mosquito on holiday in the Puerto Galera. After three days, a rash developed and dengue was diagnosed, but the illness was relatively mild.
Five years later, Gayle suffered a much more serious dengue infection. She had a high fever and was feeling lethargic. “She was vomiting half a litre of blood and needed a transfusion,” Dr Gatchalian said in an interview with a Manila-based newspaper. “She was hospitalised and I donated blood.”
The fever lasted five days but Gayle made a full recovery, Dr Gatchalian told Break Dengue. “She is alive and well; a feisty young lady who knows a little too much about Aedes aegypti mosquitoes!”
If the vaccine had been available 20 years ago, things might have been different. “I would definitely have given my children the vaccine but I’m glad that many people will now have that option.”