The Karnataka and Tamil Nadu state governments have ambitious plans to administer a new vaccine called the MR-VAC vaccine – which will prevent measles and rubella – to all children between the ages of nine months and 15 years.
However, there is panic and fear among parents regarding the vaccination programme which will supposedly be implemented in all schools across both states from February.
WhatsApp forwards warning parents of side-effects of the vaccine have been doing the rounds and many are not comfortable with the idea of compulsory vaccination.
Speaking to The News Minute, 37-year-old Subha, a Chennai resident and mother of two children says, "We've been getting mixed information about this vaccine. I've heard from the school authorities that this is going to be made compulsory for all kids and that nobody will be excused for any reason."
Subha, and other parents she has been talking to, are distinctly uncomfortable with the idea: "We've been getting a lot of forwards on WhatsApp. Audio as well as news clippings, stating that this is a test vaccine which has been found outside India and that they want to test it on Indian children. They also say that administering the vaccine will affect the child's concentration and daily activities."
Subha, whose children are five and nine years of age, says that she is not generally anti-vaccination generally and has given them all vaccines as per the pediatrician's recommendations so far, including a few which are not considered mandatory.
"But I'm not comfortable with the idea of a Medical Officer from the government doing it. If it is compulsory, I'd rather get it done through my child's pediatrician," says Subha.
Parents in Karnataka, too, have expressed their reservations about the vaccine.
One question many parents have is why the MR vaccine should be given if the child has been given the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine already.
Health Minister of Tamil Nadu, Dr C Vijayabaskar categorically states that these fears are unfounded: "This vaccine has been around for the past 20 years and it costs about Rs 1000. For the first time in India, the WHO and the government have given an opportunity to our state at request (to administer the vaccine for free) - because our health system and infrastructure are good. Just like we eradicated polio, we should eradicate measles as well as rubella and that's the intention behind this."
The minister also told TNM that the government will take strict legal action against those spreading rumours about the vaccine on WhatsApp and elsewhere.
"The vaccine that's being given currently only covers for measles, not rubella," says Dr Vijayabaskar. "The new vaccine is a combined vaccine which will prevent both."
Asked about the side-effects, the minister says, "This is WHO approved and the Indian ministry has also approved it. This vaccine is already being given by private doctors and children who can afford it are already getting it. We want to reach out to those who cannot pay for the vaccine as well."
As to why children in all schools must take the vaccine, given that it might have been administered to them already, he says, "The point is universal coverage. The government wants to make sure that every child gets it. If a pregnant woman gets rubella, she can give birth to children with congenital disabilities. We want to avoid all this."
The minister asserts that many diseases from polio to smallpox have been eradicated because of large-scale immunisation programmes and that the government only wants to ensure that such dreaded diseases don't affect anyone.
Medical practitioners agree with the minister’s view. Dr Bruno, a surgeon from Chennai, points out that the vaccine MR-VAC is manufactured by an Indian company called Serum Institute of India Pvt Ltd, and not by any foreign pharma company.
On the question of side effects, he says, "All chemicals have effects as well as side effects. Sodium Chloride or common salt can cause Hypernatremia. Water can produce Volume Overload. Even Oxygen has side effects like Retrolental Fibroplasia. It is incorrect to suggest that someone should stop breathing since Oxygen has a side effect."
Stating that the issue of vaccination should be approached by looking at "the very huge benefits and very miniscule side effects", he goes on to explain the rationale behind giving all children a particular vaccine:
"There are many different approaches in vaccination. One is Pulse Coverage in which everyone is given the vaccine irrespective of whether he/she has got it before or not. Pulse Polio is a good example for this. The other approach is to give only to those who have not got it. The Director of Public Health comes up with the policy based on their assessment of the situation."
Dr Bruno is firm that the vaccination must be compulsory and that parents must not be given a choice in the matter. "Just because you have bought a car, you cannot drive it at 200 km per hour inside Chennai or drive after consuming alcohol. Rubella can cause Congenital Rubella Syndrome, where the child will be blind, deaf and have a problem in heart. Measles can affect the child's brain,” he says.
“If anyone wants to decide whether MR Vaccines are needed or not, s/he should visit the homes of children with SSPE or Congenital Rubella Syndrome and see the sufferings of the parents himself/herself," he adds.