The Filipino anti-vaxxer
It’s time to talk more about measles.
Fears among those in the health sector that the Dengvaxia crisis would contribute to failures in vaccine coverage have been borne out in the worst way. This week San Lazaro Hospital in Manila, a known referral facility for infectious diseases, reported that 1,240 cases of measles were seen in January alone, with 47 children dying from complications, and many hospitals across the metro have seen an alarming increase in their measles census as well. Even the President warned Filipinos not to be complacent and urged families to get vaccinated — an ominous sign that things must be pretty serious.
We’re not alone in seeing this resurgence: Europe has reportedly seen its highest number of measles in 20 years, and Washington and New York have both raised red flags regarding their own local outbreaks.
It’s frustrating and disappointing because the disease, and its consequences, are so preventable. Measles, a highly contagious disease caused by the measles virus, is an airborne disease typically associated with cough, fever, colds and rashes, but which may also result in complications like pneumonia, bronchitis and encephalitis. Those at high risk for complications include infants and very young children, and immunocompromised patients have been reported to have a fatality rate approaching 30 percent. Fortunately the measles vaccine has been effective in preventing the disease, to the point where it was virtually eliminated in the United States.
The truth is plain and simple: we aren’t vaccinating enough. The anti-vaccination or “anti-vaxxer” movement abroad has eroded decades of progress in eliminating vaccine-preventable disease, and locally, it isn’t a stretch of the imagination to say that fears about vaccination reached an all-time high when misinformation about the Dengvaxia vaccine, as well as all of the other recommended vaccines for children, spread like wildfire.
In the United States, 18 states allow exemptions to vaccination based on personal or philosophical beliefs, and 12 of these states have significant rises in households choosing to be exempted from vaccines. In the Philippines in 2018, we fell way short of our target for vaccination, with an estimated 60 percent of Filipino children not receiving their vaccines. As the San Lazaro measles census will attest, the consequences of this laxity in vaccination are swift and brutal.
Ignorance and misinformation are dangerous, not only to those households which refuse vaccinations, but unfortunately for the rest of the community as well. At least 95 percent of a community ought to be vaccinated in order for herd immunity to be effective at preventing measles, but below this target, vulnerable populations, such as newborns and the immunocompromised, are more likely to be exposed and to succumb to the disease. In short, an unvaccinated few can have severe consequences for the community at large.
It’s 2019. We’re still dealing with the dystopia that is modern politics and government. Vaccine-preventable diseases should be the least of our problems because all the infrastructure is in place which should be encouraging and facilitating vaccination, and yet here we are. The last two years have given birth to the Filipino anti-vaxxer, victims of a double whammy of poor health education plus fear-mongering and misinformation from certain very noisy quarters.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, probably at the end of his rope, has given a name to these quarters. It’s time to talk more about measles and other vaccines in a level-headed, educational way, and it’s a concern and duty not only for those in the health sector but for the whole community, since we’ve made our entire population more vulnerable. Those who spread misinformation and cultivated fears surrounding health workers should be feeling very uncomfortable, and very sorry indeed.
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