Critical window period
The figures are staggering, and speak of a crisis so severe that the Department of Health (DOH) had to declare an outbreak in Metro Manila in January (the declaration later extended to other regions in Luzon, Central and Eastern Visayas the following month).
The measles cases from January to March 14, 2019, topped 21,396, with 315 reported deaths. A majority — 56 percent—of those affected were aged 9 months to 4 years. And 60 percent of these cases were not vaccinated.
These numbers represent a 547-percent increase in measles cases compared to last year’s, according to the Philippine Pediatric Society, and presents a huge setback in the substantial gains the country had accomplished over the years in the drive to eliminate this childhood scourge.
In fact, in 2005, the Philippine Foundation for Vaccination reported almost no deaths from measles in the Philippines.
The culprit for this alarming development, as has been noted by the DOH and many other local and international observers, is the renewed fear of vaccines among parents.
The World Health Organization, in fact, named “vaccine hesitancy” as one of the biggest threats to global health in 2019 alongside pandemics, climate change and HIV.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque III attributes the newfound fear of vaccines among Filipino households to the Dengvaxia controversy, which began in 2017 when Sanofi, the French pharmaceutical company producing this dengue vaccine, revealed that it could lead to severe cases of dengue among those who had not yet contracted the mosquito-borne disease.
The announcement caused panic among parents of thousands of schoolchildren who were administered the vaccine, a situation made worse by public officials and media propagandists who made political capital out of it.
The Public Attorney’s Office quickly linked several deaths to the vaccine, despite disputed findings from investigations into the cause of those deaths. But, tragically, the accusations were enough to drive parents away from health workers offering antimeasles and other vaccines.
To be clear, such fear is not confined to the Philippines. It’s a worldwide phenomenon that had similarly led to a global measles outbreak of some 6.7 million cases in 2017.
The United States and Europe, it seems, are as vulnerable to the raft of misinformation going around that amplifies unproven links between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism, first propagated by a now discredited and
retracted scientific paper.
Until they were called out, social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube regularly carried the anti-vaxxers’ claims and conspiracy theories and even earned from their ads, thus helping bring the assault on science to the mainstream.
But last week, Facebook announced it would no longer carry such ads and would limit the reach of antivaccine information by making them less prominent in search results. The policy, which extends to Instagram and Amazon, should help stem the tide of fake news that has eroded people’s confidence in medically proven interventions, to disastrous results.
On the ground, the DOH has resorted to a house-to-house vaccination campaign to stem the measles outbreak. And it has reiterated its appeal to parents and guardians of preschool and grade school pupils to use this critical window period, before the end of the school year and the onset of summer, to give kids their immunization shots.
Measles cases tend to increase during the warmer months, so the message is simple and urgent for parents: Don’t dilly-dally. Have your kids vaccinated.
Other government agencies should be conscripted to lend a hand in this task. Already, the DOH has asked the Department of Education to gather as much information on pupils before the school year ends: how many have not been vaccinated, how can information materials be distributed to their families more efficiently, can school holidays be declared in outbreak areas to prevent contamination, etc.
The Department of Social Welfare and Development should also tap its day care workers in the vaccination of pupils, and enjoin 4Ps beneficiaries to ensure that their children get the proper shots.
The Department of Transportation, meanwhile, can assist in distributing vaccines and other logistics, while the Armed Forces can deploy its medical personnel in geographically isolated areas and conflict zones and ensure the safety of health workers.
This all-hands-on-deck approach might yet be the best unintended result of this public health crisis. And now is the best time for the big push to have the country regain its confidence in vaccines and, as Duque rightly put it, “give our children a fighting chance to have a bright future.”
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