MANILA (UPDATE)— The outbreak of debilitating disease polio in the Philippines has ended, the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF announced Friday as it lauded the country's response to its resurgence almost two years ago.
"The polio outbreak detected in PH in September 2019 is now over. This follows after a careful assessment of the country’s outbreak response by a team of global polio eradication experts," WHO Philippines said in a tweet.
In a statement, the WHO and UNICEF said there has been no polio case detected over the last 16 months following the declaration of an outbreak of the disease on September 19, 2019.
The Department of Health (DOH) said in a public briefing that the Philippines had a total 17 confirmed polio cases since it reemerged in 2019, with no deaths.
"The DOH officially concluded the polio outbreak response on 3 June 2021. The decision came as the virus has not been detected in a child or in the environment in the past 16 months and is a result of comprehensive outbreak response actions including intensified immunization and surveillance activities in affected areas of the country," the two global organizations said.
Video courtesy of the DOH
Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said the last time the country recorded a polio case was on Jan. 16 last year, detected through environmental surveillance in Cebu.
The development comes as positive news for the Philippine health system, which has been reeling from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is a major win for public health and is an excellent example of what collective efforts can attain, even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic," said Dr Rabindra Abeyasinghe, WHO Representative to the Philippines, citing government efforts, community engagement, and the hard work of health frontliners to again eradicate the disease.
“We look forward for these efforts to be sustained for a strong and resilient immunization system, utilizing the investments made for polio outbreak response and COVID-19 vaccination to ensure all children are protected from vaccine preventable diseases as the Philippines moves towards achieving Universal Health Care,” he said.
Polio was detected in the country in September 2019 after 19 years of being polio-free. It came just a few months before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The WHO and UNICEF commended the Philippines' efforts to step up immunization against polio despite vaccine hesitation and the limiting effects of the pandemic.
It noted how the DOH pursued a "robust polio immunization campaign" despite challenges of mobilizing at the community level amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Abeyasinghe said since the polio outbreak began in 2019, the Philippines "significantly strengthened" surveillance efforts for the virus.
He also urged the public, most especially the parents, to accept oral polio vaccines to prevent future outbreaks.
The government managed to administer 30 million oral polio vaccines from 2019 to 2021, with 11 million Filipino children vaccinated against the disease.
In late April, Vergeire said they were able to immunize at least 6 million children aged below 5 years old, or 87 percent of their target despite low vaccine confidence among Filipinos amid the pandemic.
The health official said the campaign would serve as a pattern for the country's inoculation strategy against COVID-19.
"The vaccine confidence is low... but this campaign has proven otherwise because we were able to do so and we were able to accomplish this high percentage of children vaccinated in spite of the pandemic," according to Vergeire.
Polio is a highly infectious disease that is "crippling and sometimes fatal," with children below 5 most vulnerable, the WHO said. It still has no cure but can be prevented.
According to the health department in March, some 800,000 Filipinos aged 5 years old below are still unvaccinated from measles, rubella, and polio in target regions.
— reports from Tarra Quismundo and Job Manahan, ABS-CBN News