Rising measles cases due to public's eroding confidence in gov't vaccine program

Raphael Bosano, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Dec 05 2018 11:36 PM | Updated as of Dec 06 2018 02:05 AM

Jennylyn Matimbol endured a day’s trek, a motorcycle and even a horseback ride from the far-flung Sitio of Mahayag in Malapatan, Sarangani just to reach the R.O. Diagan Hospital in General Santos City. 

In the last week of November, patients showing signs of measles in Sarangani has reached 84; another 18 have died.

The World Health Organization said the Philippines has seen a rise in the number of measles cases by 367 percent from January to November this year compared to 2017. 

Medical experts agree that the public’s eroding confidence in the government’s immunization program is partly the cause of the sudden spike of measles cases.

Speaking to the media last week, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III cited a study conducted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine that revealed a drop in 1,500 Filipinos’ trust in vaccines: only 32 percent say they trust vaccines as opposed to 92 percent in 2015. 

The disturbingly low confidence is attributed to none other than the controversial anti-dengue vaccine, Dengvaxia. A year since that controversy, the DOH is still reeling from its effects, with children having to die from diseases which may very well be prevented had the scare not been blown out of proportion.

WHO country representative Gundo Weiler revealed that majority of the measles cases in the country are concentrated in Mindanao’s western portion. 

But data also shows that there are other areas which have recorded the virus, with Manila also recording several cases. He explains that aside from the challenges posed by geographical isolation, as is the case in Sarangani, the low vaccination coverage was also triggered by the Marawi siege.

“Because of the conflict and other challenges, they are hader to reach. When people began to be displaced, they were harboring the virus. They transferred to different areas and some displacements were also in Manila,” WHO technical officer Maricel Castro, said.

Castro also admits, that not a lot of families have a health seeking behavior. 

Data from the Pediatric Infectious Disease Society of the Philippines (PIDSP) revealed that out of 10,672 reported measles cases from January 1 to June 30 this year, 69 percent were found to not having been vaccinated. 

Reasons for this include parents being too busy to have their children vaccinated, fear of the vaccine’s side effects, difficulty in accessing health services as well as vaccination being against their beliefs.

But like eradication of the deadly plague that was smallpox in the 1700s, vaccines play an important role of also controlling and later on eliminating diseases like measles. 

Apart from protecting an individual from diseases, vaccines have a a whole lot of other benefits including the prevention of antibiotic resistance, extension of life expectancy, promotion of safe travel and mobility as well as prevention of certain types of cancer. 

Unfortunately, certain vaccines including the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine have not been fully availed since 2015 hence resulting in some contracting measles and infecting others in the community.

The PIDSP said the public must put its trust back on vaccines especially those which have been long part of the government’s immunization program. 

PIDSP President, Dr Anna Liza Ong-Lim, says getting the public to understand what vaccines are and how they work, will somehow help in debunking myths which have been formed by a portion of the public throughout the years. 

Vaccines contain inactivated or weakened viruses and micro-organisms which, when introduced to the body, train the immune system to develop protective agents for defense. 

Currently, 271 vaccines are being developed which span a wide array of diseases apart from infections; 99 are for cancer, 15 for allergies and 10 for neurological disorders.

Medical experts say that while no vaccine is 100% effective, having it lessens the risk of complications tremendously as opposed to contracting a virus. 

What they guarantee is there is no risk of dying from the measles vaccine, which is why they say the government needs to act fast in reaching geographically isolated areas, especially those in Mindanao in order to control the spread of measles. 

Not only will this benefit the health department but most importantly free people like Jennylyn from the emotional, physical and financial battles just to save the life of her children from an illness which they shouldn’t have to worry about in the first place.