Preventing measles outbreaks

RECENTLY, the Department of Health (DOH) declared measles outbreaks in various regions of the country, namely Metro Manila (NCR), Central Luzon (III), CALABARZON (IVA), Central Visayas (VII), and Eastern Visayas (VIII).

In fact, more than 5,600 people have been infected since the beginning of this year. And sadly, around 70 — a third of whom were unvaccinated children younger than nine months old — have succumbed to the highly contagious disease.

To say such outbreak came as a surprise would be misguided. One might even say that the signs were all over the place. For in November 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) released data showing that measles cases in the Philippines had skyrocketed some 367 percent—from 17,928 between January and November 2018 from only 3,706 during the same period in 2017.  As early as March last year, local health officials had already declared outbreaks in Davao Region, Zamboanga City, Davao City, Kabankalan City in Negros Oriental, some areas in Negros Occidental, and a barangay in Taguig City.

Health officials have since pinpointed lower vaccination rates in children as among the main causes of the disease’s quick spread in recent months.  Where the DOH’s annual target is to vaccinate 85 percent of children, Health Undersecretary Rolando Domingo said that it fell to roughly 60 percent in February 2018.

Some have attributed the drop to a general loss of confidence in the health department’s vaccination activities, since 2017’s dengue vaccine scare. Apparently, some parents started hiding their children every time health workers would come and offer vaccinations, out of fear from what they heard about the alleged links between the government-administered dengue vaccine and the deaths of handfuls of children stricken with the disease.

In a recent Washington Post article, Lulu Navarro, executive director of The Philippine Foundation for Vaccination, even shared that some of their field health workers had been called “child killers” and chased away by communities. In fact, the field workers were just giving out deworming medication.

However, to place the blame on the dengue vaccine scare alone would be to disregard the fact that vaccination rates had actually been falling over the past decade.  The WHO estimated that where vaccination coverage was above 80 percent in 2008, it fell to below 70 percent in 2017.  Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) data likewise shows that the percentage of children with no vaccinations rose from only 4 percent in 2013 to 9 percent in 2017.

Such trends must be arrested and reversed quickly.  Hence, it’s only right that our health officials are currently taking decisive steps not just to fast-track their immunization programs, but also to send out reassuring messages about vaccines being a safe means of disease prevention. We merely ask that extra care is taken to ensure that our government hospitals and rural health units are stocked with enough vaccines and are equipped with adequate healthcare professionals to administer them.

In fact, the country’s disease-prevention efforts have yielded fantastic results before. We were able to eradicate polio in 2010, and tetanus among mothers and newborns in 2017. All were possible because of concerted efforts not only between national and local officials, but also among community leaders and families. There’s no reason such synergy can’t be achieved again to prevent more measles outbreaks.


Senator Sonny Angara was elected in 2013, and now chairs the Senate committees on local government, and ways and means. (Email:| Facebook, Twitter & Instagram: @sonnyangara)/PN


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