THE PAST few months have cast a lingering shadow over the Department of Health’s (DOH) national immunization program. In an online article, the DOH pointed out that from Jan. 1 to Feb. 9 of 2019, 4,302 cases of measles had been reported, with 70 deaths, with children four years old and below being the most affected. Of those who died, 79 percent had no history of measles vaccination.
Just this September, the DOH declared a polio outbreak, with a three-year-old falling victim to the debilitating virus in Lanao del Sur, aside from two other possible cases — one in Manila, and the other in Davao. The disturbing fact is that our country was declared polio-free in 2000, with the last case reported in 1993.
Now, while it is understandable that parents have the very adult fear of subjecting their children to the possible side effects of vaccination, the sicknesses they protect against are more dangerous.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), measles is a leading cause of death among young children across the world, with one in 20 catching pneumonia, and one in 1,000 having inflammation of the brain. 164,000 people, mostly children, die from it every year.
Polio is even worse. It affects children under 5 years old and can cause total paralysis in hours. The paralysis is life-long, and can require lifelong medical assistance — that is, if the patients do not die of the effects of the paralysis.
This downward trend in vaccination rates in our country is in part due to what the DOH has termed “vaccine hesitancy.” This term refers to how people will delay or refuse vaccinations in spite of the availability of vaccination services from the government. This, combined with a lack of healthcare workers and a poor understanding of health, lowered the national immunization coverage, setting the stage for possible outbreaks of measles and polio.
DOH data recently submitted to the Senate showed that vaccination rates for polio and measles have been going down, even before the Dengvaxia controversy. Polio vaccinations were lowest in 2018, at 66 percent, and measles at 67 percent in the same year. This is a far cry from the United Nations’ recommendation of 95 percent coverage, to shield the remaining five percent who, for various reasons, have not been or cannot be vaccinated.
Thankfully, the DOH is about to get a shot in the arm for its national immunization program. P74 billion has been allocated for it, next year. Vaccines against tuberculosis, hepatitis B, diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, rubella, and influenza, aside from measles and polio, will be made available for free to children, pregnant women, and any man or woman who needs it. This means that in the case of infants, 2.7 million will be given vaccines.
The Department of Education will also be involved in the program, with school-centered vaccination activities for 2.4 million Grade 1 and 1.9 million Grade 9 students. They will be given vaccines against tetanus, diphtheria, measles, and rubella. About 2.7 million pregnant women, on the other hand, will be given anti-tetanus shots. Meanwhile, two million flu shots and 500,000 pneumonia vaccines will be given to the elderly.
We need to rebuild the so-called “herd immunity” of the nation. Done properly, we can minimize vaccination concerns, and bring our vaccination ratio back up to 95 percent. This will be, if you pardon the pun, one of the best shots our national health services can give in the collective arm of our people.
Sen. Sonny Angara has been in public service for 15 years — nine years as Representative of the Lone District of Aurora, and six as Senator. He has authored and sponsored more than 200 laws. He recently won another term in the Senate. (Email: [email protected]| Facebook, Twitter & Instagram: @sonnyangara)/PN