By FORMER SENATOR ATTY. JOEY LINA
If one were to find anything good from the measles outbreak that has claimed the lives of many children since the start of 2019, it could be that more and more parents are now putting aside their fear of vaccines stirred by the hysteria over the Dengvaxia controversy.
Since health authorities sounded off the alarm last week on the spike in cases of measles – caused by an airborne virus that usually afflicts the very young, even babies and those still in the mother’s womb, that have hit Metro Manila and other regions of the country, TV news reports showed many mothers either taking their children to health centers for immunization shots or fully cooperating with health workers doing inoculation rounds house-to-house in many communities.
Could the fear of more deaths among children who were not immunized lead to a reversal in the current fear of vaccines in general?
For the first three weeks of this year, the Department of Health Epidemiology Bureau said 169 cases of measles were recorded in Metro Manila, a far cry from the 20 cases during the same period at the start of 2018. But for the entire 2018, measles cases jumped to 3,646 in Metro Manila, from just a mere 351 cases in 2017. As to fatalities, DOH Undersecretary Eric Domingo said yesterday on ANC that the nationwide death toll has already reached 70 as of Feb. 10.
The alarming rise in measles cases has been attributed to “low vaccine coverage because of the Dengvaxia scare.”
It was in December, 2017, that the controversy over Dengvaxia jolted the nation’s consciousness. It started when Sanofi, the French pharmaceutical company that developed Dengvaxia, issued an official statement that “for those not previously infected by dengue virus, more cases of severe disease could occur following vaccination upon a subsequent dengue infection.”
Amid the hysteria whipped up over the anti-dengue vaccine, many parents refused vaccination for their children, resulting in a steep drop in vaccination coverage. The lower immunization rate, as low as 32 percent, surfaced last October in a report published in Human Vaccines and Immunotherapeutics Journal, based on a study led by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine which conducted a resurvey of 1,500 participants.
It revealed that “in 2015, a resounding majority of 93 percent of the participants classified themselves as ‘strongly agreeing’ that vaccines were important; in the 2018 resurvey, months after the Dengvaxia controversy burst into the open, that proportion had fallen to 32 percent.”
“The Sanofi announcement was a spark that fuelled the flames of underlying political ferment in the Philippines. Health authorities and immunization programmes cannot solve political tensions, but trust issues and potential areas of anxiety and possible dissent must be considered in advance of a pandemic. This is especially important in an era of social media and the ability for misinformation to be spread far and wide at the touch of a button,” explained Prof. Heidi Larson, lead author of the study.
The country representative of the World Health Organization, Dr. Gundo Weiler, stressed that measles “could have been avoided if we had achieved higher vaccination coverage.” He also warned low vaccination rates could lead to reemergence of other diseases like polio, diphtheria, and pertussis.
“The trust in vaccination has been challenged. I think it is important that we rebuild trust and pass on the message very clearly that Dengvaxia is unrelated to the very well-established vaccination programs that have been running in the country for many years and without any doubt has generated huge benefits for those who received vaccination,” Weiler said.
The UNICEF has also urged mothers to trust vaccines. “The measles vaccine is safe and effective and had been successfully used in the Philippines for more than 40 years now,” UNICEF Philippines Deputy Representative Julia Rees explained.
Mass vaccination programs have been effective indeed against dreaded diseases. It is time for local government units, especially at the barangay level, to embark on a massive information drive and heed President Duterte’s order for “a vigorous campaign to promote the complete immunization for children.”
Dying from a disease that is preventable by sufficient immunization is certainly tragic. But there could be a silver lining if the fear of death from the complications of measles overcomes the fear of vaccines in general.