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Editorial

Spike in measles

/ 05:36 AM April 19, 2018

Over 700 cases of measles have been recorded by the Department of Health in the first three months of 2018, more than double the 300 reported cases in the same period last year.

Although less than 1 percent of the confirmed cases ended in death, the DOH expressed fears that a surge in this infectious disease can be expected, given that the vaccine coverage for the entire country is only about 65 percent.

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Administered free in government clinics and hospitals as part of the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine protocol, the antimeasles shot has fewer takers this year, provincial health officers have observed.

Fewer takers despite the serious health complications that unprotected children infected with measles face: pneumonia, diarrhea, brain damage, blindness, and death.

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Parents were skipping the MMR vaccine because of the health scare stirred up by the antidengue vaccine Dengvaxia, according to health officials.

Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said an outbreak of diseases was not a remote possibility as more people become distrustful of vaccines because of the controversy.

At least 800,000 children were administered the antidengue vaccine in 2016 and 2017, until the French pharmaceutical company Sanofi Pasteur advised against it because clinical findings showed that it could lead to severe complications among those who have not been previously infected with the mosquito-borne virus.

The mass immunization program has been halted but that did not stop certain government officials and personalities from mining the issue for what strongly smelled of personal political ambitions.

The Public Attorney’s Office (PAO), for one, has been very visible and dramatic in linking the deaths of at least 14 children to dengue because of Dengvaxia, foisting on the public the autopsy reports from the PAO chief’s staff that, strangely enough, she did not want to share with the panel of forensic experts from the University of the Philippines-Philippine General Hospital.

The panel was formed precisely to investigate the children’s deaths in an objective and professional light.

But despite the UP-PGH panel’s findings linking only 2 of 14 deaths to dengue, the PAO has relentlessly shepherded grieving parents to media briefings and protest rallies, with some purported parents degenerating into mobs calling for the heads of health officials under the previous administration, which launched the Dengvaxia vaccination program in 2016.

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In the Senate, Sen. Richard Gordon issued a draft committee report accusing former president Benigno Aquino III and his subalterns of corruption and undue haste in using the vaccine.

But Gordon tellingly stopped short of including officials of the current administration although they had continued the mass immunization program and had in fact given the vaccine to more schoolchildren.

With the 2019 midterm elections looming, such political play can be expected. But callously, and at the expense of children’s health?

The importance of vaccines cannot be overemphasized. Before the 1980s there were more than 4 million confirmed cases of measles worldwide. With the advent of vaccines and medications, those numbers have dropped significantly.

But in recent years, with the so-called antivaccine movement in the United States and Europe linking vaccines to autism, the measles vaccine coverage has stalled at 78 percent, when a much higher percentage—90-95 percent — is needed to stamp out the disease.

And with people traveling more frequently and over wider distances, this virus can be spread much more quickly, too: Often, sneezing and coughing in a crowded place are all it takes. Measles lingers in the air and remains infectious for up to two hours, an unusually long time for an airborne virus.

With more unprotected children exposed to the virus, what are the chances of an outbreak happening?

To prevent that, all 50 states in America now require the MMR vaccine and other vaccinations prior to enrollment in elementary school or day care, with exemptions made for medical or religious reasons.

The Philippines can easily adopt the same measure, with community health workers doing a house-to-house campaign for childhood vaccination, and educating parents — especially in remote areas where people depend on herbolarios, village elders and superstition—about the benefits of vaccinations and the health risks of skipping them. A mass media campaign on the subject would go a long way as well.

No effort should be spared, given that immunization can be our best, most cost-effective investment in our children’s health and their future.

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TAGS: dengue vaccine, Dengvaxia, Department of Health, DoH, Francisco Duque III, Inquirer editorial, measles, MMR, mumps, PAO, public attorney’s office, Richard Gordon, rubella, Sanofi Pasteur
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