At Claudio Sandoval Elementary on the Philippines island of Coron, just 27 of the 300 enrolled Grade 1 students are vaccinated. And yet, immunisations are readily available.

Parents were sent consent forms in December but most simply refused to sign them – fearing that scheduled measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) and tetanus-diphtheria vaccines would have an adverse effect on their children.

Immunisation rates for common vaccines like polio, tuberculosis, MMR and tetanus-diphtheria, are historically lower in the Philippines than in countries like Australia.

This is usually attributed to inaccessibility in rural areas, where children are not always enrolled in school.

However, the safety concerns of parents have fast become the Philippines’ Department of Health’s (DoH) biggest problem.

Liezl* (who did not want to give her last name) is a nurse who performs general check-ups at many public schools in the area.

She attributes the low immunisation rate to the Dengvaxia tragedy of late 2017, when an incorrectly administered vaccine led to the deaths of at least eight children.

Doctor Marvin Espino is an employee of the Rural Health Unit (RHU) clinic in Coron, which implements the DoH’s school immunisation program.

“The number of the parents who… sign the consent for their children to be vaccinated is normally quite high… compared to this year,” he explained.

“The number really dwindled, so everyone is pointing at the Dengvaxia scare.”

In 2016, the Department of Health bought the Dengvaxia vaccine from French pharmaceutical Sanofi Pasteur.

After a year of vaccinating students, reports emerged that the drug was only effective when administered to children who were already infected with at least one strain of the Dengue virus.

“This is the ugly part of the program,” Dr Espino said.

“They implemented it to all students, regardless of their history of having dengue or not.

“A lot of parents blamed the vaccine itself for the deaths.”

“But that’s not the truth. It’s just a reaction if the child is bitten by another mosquito harbouring the dengue virus.”

Doctor Espino says that the RHU’s role in educating parents is essential in regaining trust and bringing immunisation rates up again.

We are being invited by several schools to have these kinds of discussions among parents, even lectures, to inform them of the misnomers and myths about vaccines, and we have to provide facts about the efficacy and the safety of these vaccines.

“Parents are scared but not hysterical.”

– Eilidh Mellis @Eilidh_Mellis

*The author travelled to the Philippines as part of The Foreign Correspondent Study Tour, a University of Technology Sydney (UTS) programme supported by the New Colombo Plan (NCP) mobility grants.