'Long-standing neglect' caused measles outbreak: expert

Jauhn Etienne Villaruel, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Feb 07 2019 03:07 PM | Updated as of Feb 07 2019 05:18 PM

The government's "long-standing neglect" of its immunization program caused the steep drop in the number of vaccinated children now vulnerable to preventable diseases, a public health expert said Thursday.

Dr. Susan Mercado, Deputy Secretary General of Red Cross' Centers for Health and Humanitarian Action, said the measles outbreak observed in different regions would not have happened had the government set its immunization target "90 to 95 percent in the past 10 years."

"We're talking about long-standing neglect of the public health program of extended immunization. If we had set [our immunization target] high at 90 to 95 percent in the past 10 years or so this would not be happening. This has happened over a period of time," said Mercado. 

The Department of Health (DOH) revealed about 90 percent of those infected with measles nationwide are unvaccinated.

Low trust in the government's immunization drive may be attributed to anti-dengue vaccine Dengvaxia, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III earlier said.

Aside from Metro Manila, there is also a measles outbreak in Calabarzon, Western Visayas, and Central Visayas. 

Mercado said the government must move "fast enough" to contain the outbreak and prevent premature deaths. 

"The government and the people in the DOH have the knowledge, the resources and the will to be able to control this and get this done... If we don't move fast enough, we'll have more mortalities, so we will have premature deaths," warned Mercado.

So far, Metro Manila had logged 441 cases and 5 deaths while Central Luzon had 192 cases and 4 deaths, DOH said.

For Mercado, the most effective public health measure is vaccination at the community level, preferably in health centers.

"If we're able to quickly move to vaccinate enough children to create herd immunity among 6 to 69 months old, then there's gonna break in the transmission so the contagiousness of the disease declines when you have thousands of children who cannot transfer the disease," the expert said.

Herd immunity means a "high percentage of the population is protected through vaccination against a virus or bacteria, making it difficult for a disease to spread because there are so few susceptible people left to infect," according to US-based website Vaccines Today. 

President Rodrigo Duterte and his Cabinet met on Wednesday to discuss the country's immunization programs following the alarms raised over the rising number of measles cases.