The numbers are jolting.
Health officials say 58 children aged 3 months to 4 years old who were brought to Manila’s San Lazaro Hospital have died of measles so far this year.
With 169 cases from Jan. 1 to 19, nearly seven times the 26 recorded during the same period in 2018, the Department of Health (DOH) has declared a measles epidemic in the National Capital Region. The reason for the outbreak? The “low vaccine coverage because of the Dengvaxia scare.”
In November 2017, Sanofi Pasteur disclosed, belatedly, that people inoculated with its vaccine but who have had no prior exposure to the mosquito-borne virus were at risk of severe dengue. That, and reported deaths of children who received Dengvaxia shots, created widespread panic, exacerbated by the wanton political point-scoring that ensued.
In the wake of that controversy, the number of measles cases in Metro Manila rose more than tenfold, from 351 in 2017 to 3,646 in 2018. As of early this week, San Lazaro, which is a referral hospital for communicable diseases, had already admitted 1,550 measles patients, over 1,350 of them young children and teenagers.
Measles is a highly contagious respiratory disease which could have fatal complications like pneumonia. It is spread by an airborne virus, but a vaccine could give lifetime protection to children as young as 9 months old.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque said the vaccination program, and even the deworming campaign of the DOH, are hurting from the “baseless claims and accusations” against him and his department by Persida Acosta, head of the Public Attorney’s Office. Acosta claims some 600 people have suffered from Dengvaxia’s alleged negative effects and has caused dozens of deaths; a number of partisan bloggers have amplified those claims, even as numerous health and medical experts have disputed them. Acosta also said DOH paid P50,000 in hush money to families of alleged Dengvaxia victims, a charge Duque flatly denied.
While the two officials squabble and Malacañang stays above the fray, thousands of measles patients lie in harm’s way.
The World Health Organization has warned that if the vaccination program continues to be undermined, other serious diseases such as polio, pertussis and diphtheria could reemerge.
A survey by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine published in October 2018 showed that the number of Filipinos “strongly agreeing” that vaccines were important dropped dramatically from 93 percent in 2015 to 32 percent in 2018. Confidence in the safety and effectiveness of vaccines also plunged from 82 percent to about 22 percent, according to the poll of 1,500 Filipinos.
The high number of deaths due to measles is inexcusable for Metro Manila, the nation’s main source of information and resources for disease control. The DOH is clearly the lead agency in the battle for hearts and minds here. Nothing less than a massive reeducation campaign is necessary to stem the tide of fear and misinformation that has spread in the wake of Acosta et al.’s strident campaign against the Dengvaxia vaccination program, and to get parents to take their children to hospitals and health centers again to have them, and even other adults, immunized.
Public trust in vaccines must be won back with a comprehensive and creative information and education drive, perhaps with help from the Department of the Interior and Local Government and the Department of Education. Rep. Edcel Lagman has suggested that local health personnel go house-to-house to give vaccines in communities where people do not show up at their health centers for inoculation. That’s a good idea.
With proper orientation, teachers in both public and private schools with whom children spend most of their productive hours during the day could also be recruited for the public information campaign. And medical specialists and health experts should be mobilized by the DOH to shut up the quacks and help restrengthen the people’s faith in the science behind vaccines and preventive measures against measles, dengue and other dread diseases.
The legal cases against those deemed responsible for the failed Dengvaxia drive should be left for the courts to decide, and the science behind the efficacy of vaccines addressed by scientists and medical experts, no one else.
Hysteria can kill and has killed. There will be a day of reckoning for Acosta and her calamitous hatchet job on public health. For now, the country has a more urgent task—containing a tragedy that could have been prevented had this supposedly stern administration taken a sterner hand in this fiasco.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.