How drug companies use Rotavirus to frighten new moms and dads
Akshay Iyer 20 December 2012

Is the pharmaceutical industry trying to create an opportunity for making money by hard-selling new vaccines to parents by creating a false scare about the disease?

In July 2012, leading pharmaceutical major GlaxoSmithKline started issuing advertisements saying that nearly five lakh babies die in India due to Rotavirus. Hence, the aim was clearly to ensure that Rotavirus vaccines become a part of the mandatory vaccines that are given to new born babies and infants. What makes this advertisement interesting is that it did not promote a particular company but the need for the vaccine. In other words, here was a sly attempt by the pharmaceutical companies to unite and look forward to ‘creating’ a new market.

So, what is Rotavirus and its threat? Rotavirus is spread by ingestion of the virus through contaminated food, and effective hygiene helps in reducing the spread of infection. Former vice chancellor of Manipal University Prof Dr BM Hegde, a Padma Bhushan recipient has written a detailed and precise article shattering myths about Rotavirus. Dr Hegde debunks the process of vaccination by informing us that vaccination is now sold using statistical tricks of relative risk reduction while suppressing the most useful absolute risk reduction. The story also illustrates that medical companies have been using statistics as their weapon to sell ideas to gullible and doctors. The article also points to relevant studies quoted in the British Medical Journal.

What did the pharma companies aim to achieve by its so-called public service advertisement warning people about the Rotavirus vaccine? Once the alleged dangers of being affected by rotavirus are implanted in the minds of parents, pharmaceutical companies only need to push prescription by having armies of medical representatives to work on the doctors to promote it. Once a particular doctor also endorses the scare, then it is a win-win situation both for the pharmaceutical industry and the medical fraternity at the cost of ordinary people.

Thankfully, Dr Nalini Abraham, a Delhi-based medical practitioner, objected to the advertisements featuring the Rotavirus vaccination being broadcast freely on television channels and filed an official complaint with the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI). Her complaint dated 7 July 2012 alleges that the advertisement misrepresents facts as it demonstrates that vaccines are the only way to reduce incidents of infection. The advertisement further goes on to illustrate that simple methods such as hand washing do not help in prevention of infections. It is important to realize that the complaint was not about the expensive nature of the vaccine but the need for it.

Replying to the complaint lodged at the Advertising Standards Council of India in Mumbai, the advertisers maintained that the campaign did not refer to any brand name and did not mention the word ‘vaccine’. Thus, the advertisers maintained the campaign directed the audiences to consult his/her doctor for more information before making a direct-to-consumer sale pitch. They also claimed that their statements were substantiated by scientific studies conducted by global health authorities such as Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, PATH, Global Alliance for Vaccine and Immunization.


The Consumers Complaints Council (CCC) of the Advertising Standards Council of India reviewed the response provided by the advertiser and arrived at the conclusion that the claim of vaccination being the only way to reduce incidents of infection was inadequately substantiated. Keeping in mind the concerns lodged by the complainant, the claim that vaccination was the only way to treat rotavirus was also found to be misleading. The screening panel upheld the complaint filed by Dr Abraham under Chapters I.I. and I.4 and said that the issues raised by the vaccine were complex. The nature of the advertisement, therefore, could not be allowed to be broadcast in a direct advertisement to the public in such a misleading fashion.

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