Polio and an opportunity to strengthen UHC
Yesterday was World Polio Day. Other countries may reflect on polio as a thing of the past, but in the Philippines, we are concerned to see its recent reemergence. The terrible news is that two young children have been infected with polio and are facing the lifelong consequences of disability and other potentially serious health issues. On the other hand, we also see this as an opportunity for the Philippine government to fix some of the underlying challenges facing the health system as it plans for the implementation of the universal health care (UHC) law .
This opportunity is now being actively grasped. For the past 11 days, vaccination teams have been sent out from every health center in the National Capital Region (NCR) and in Mindanao, particularly in Lanao del Sur, Marawi City, Davao del Sur and Davao City. These teams are looking for every child under the age of 5 and giving them two drops of vaccine that will help protect them and their neighbors from the risk of diseases.
It is hard, painstaking work. Teams of volunteers led by health workers are going door to door, barangay to barangay, making sure they have identified and protected every child under 5. Some are easy to find, but for others it takes time and effort. They may be in remote, hard-to-access areas; they and their families may be migrants or other mobile populations; they may never have been registered with a health center. Either way, they must be found. And they must be protected.
This is an emergency response, and will continue until at least January, in the NCR and across Mindanao. Like any emergency response, it is essential but also not enough. In the long term, the focus must be on increasing the number of children who are fully protected with vaccines as part of the routine immunization program. There are a variety of factors why children miss out on vaccines. It could be because their parents are reluctant to have them vaccinated, because they have just moved to a new area and don’t know why or where to receive vaccines, or because the local clinic has run out of supplies.
Falling immunization rates are behind the polio outbreak, and behind other recent vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks. These polio cases have reappeared 19 years after the Philippines was certified as polio-free. They follow a serious outbreak of measles, as well as rising cases of diphtheria. Taken together, these are clear warnings that not enough children are being protected against vaccine-preventable diseases.
Vaccines are extraordinary tools because they not only protect individual children; they protect their family and neighbors as well. Herd immunity is the phrase for the community effect of vaccines. But this only works when 95 percent of the population is protected. Below that, the collective effect doesn’t work and every individual is at greater risk.
At the World Health Organization (WHO), we are working closely with Unicef in assisting the Department of Health in the current polio outbreak response, through supporting the vaccination campaign and strengthening disease surveillance. At the same time, we are committed for the longer term. We will continue to provide advice and support to the government as it works hard to increase routine immunization coverage, and ensure that children in the Philippines are protected against all vaccine-preventable diseases.
Together with the government, we are committed to the long-term goal of the UHC—ensuring that everyone has access to protection and treatment services throughout their lives.
Building the routine immunization system back up—with support from local health centers, barangay health workers and volunteers from the Red Cross, Rotary and other partners—creates a strong foundation for a universal health care system. By working toward the goal of ensuring that every child has a healthy start in life, we are committed to a healthier and prosperous future for the Philippines.
Dr. Rabindra Abeyasinghe is the acting WHO representative in the Philippines.
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