Indonesia is in the midst of a diphtheria outbreak that has affected hundreds and killed dozens this year, with medical professionals saying anti-vaxxers played a crucial part in the spread of the disease.
According to the Health Ministry, as of November 2017, there were 593 reported diphtheria cases, resulting in 32 deaths, in 20 Indonesian provinces. The bacterial infection affected children and adults alike.
“This is an extraordinary incident because there are no age limits in the diphtheria outbreak of 2017. The youngest affected was 3-and-a-half while the oldest was 45,” said Mohamad Subuh, director of the Disease Prevention and Control at the Health Ministry, as quoted by Kompas.
Subuh added that of those affected, 66% had not been given the vaccine against diphtheria, while 31% had only been partially vaccinated against the disease.
In response, the government is carrying out a free vaccination program in the 20 provinces affected, starting on December 11 in three of the most populated and affected provinces: Jakarta, West Java, and Banten.
However, it’s likely that there will be resistance against the vaccine as anti-vaxxers in the country have become more vocal in accusing vaccines of containing traces of pig DNA making them haram (forbidden) under Islam.
Medical professionals in East Java, which is also seeing high levels of diphtheria outbreak this year, say there are many parents who risk their children being affected by all sorts of preventable diseases because they still believe in false rumors about vaccines.
“Why is (the diagnosis of diphtheria) high in East Java? Because many are refusing vaccination. They say that the vaccines contain traces of pig. That’s not true,” said Dr Agus Hariyanto, a pediatrician at the state-owned Soetomo Hospital in Surabaya, as quoted by CNN Indonesia yesterday.
Diphtheria is a bacterial infection of the nose and throat that could be deadly if not prevented or treated in time. It is considered an ancient disease in many parts of the world due to the emergence of vaccines. In 2015, the World Health Organization recorded 4,500 cases of diphtheria worldwide (down from close to 100,000 in 1980), with most cases occurring in sub-Saharan Africa, India, and Indonesia. It’s not too surprising considering that the diphtheria immunization coverage in infants in Indonesia is amongst the lowest in the world at 50-79%.
The anti-science, anti-vaccine movement seems to be gaining ground in Indonesia. It doesn’t help that some anti-vaccine celebrities are public about their stance, like self-proclaimed cleric Oki Setiana Dewi, whose daughters suffered from measles due to lack of immunization against the disease.