DOH eyes higher immunization rate
The outbreak of measles and polio—two vaccine-preventable diseases—in 2019 underscored the need to prioritize and improve the country’s immunization rate, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said.
“The most important lesson from the 2019 experience is that we have to prioritize immunization at all times,” Duque said in an interview, adding that a community must achieve a 95 percent vaccination coverage to achieve herd immunity and protection from the 12 vaccine-preventable diseases.
An effective immunization coverage is also crucial in ensuring the success of the universal health care program scheduled to be rolled out this year, the health official said.For Health Undersecretary Eric Domingo, the 2019 outbreak of polio and measles showed the need for the public to become better educated about health. “People should understand the mechanism on how to prevent diseases and how vaccines work. We can’t vaccinate only when there’s an outbreak. It has to be sustained,” he added.
Dengvaxia controversyAlthough the 2018 dip of 60 percent in vaccination rates can be attributed to the Dengvaxia controversy, data from the health department showed that vaccination rates for both polio and measles have been slipping since 2014.
Over the last five years, the immunization rate for polio ranged from a high of 75 percent in 2015, to a low of 66 percent in 2019, while that for measles peaked at 79 percent in 2015, and dropped to 67 percent in 2019.
Many parents stayed away from the Dengvaxia dengue vaccine in 2017 and 2018 after its manufacturer, Sanofi Pasteur, admitted in November 2017 that it may cause severe dengue among those who have yet to be infected by the mosquito-borne disease.
The alarming dip in vaccine coverage should have prompted the government to strengthen its expanded program on immunization (EPI), the “cornerstone” of the country’s health system, the National Institutes of Health of the University of the Philippines (UP-NIH) said.
Lack of staff
Except that unlike in neighboring Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, where the central office of their national immunization program has at least 40 experts, the country’s EPI has been hobbled by a lack of staff, with its head office manned by only three officials, and the regional offices overseen by just two individuals.
Still, the government could have been more efficient and proactive in educating the public about the importance of vaccines, especially amid the Dengvaxia scare, said Dr. Lena Lopez, head of UP-NIH’s institute of child health and human development.
“We should have been more passionate about establishing the value of vaccination. Vaccines provide equity. It’s a public health right,” said Lopez, who has been working on vaccine research for close to two decades now.
As it is, the Dengvaxia issue eroded the gains made by previous health secretaries, among them Juan Flavier, whose vaccination campaigns resulted in a 95-percent coverage.
Government health workers could have gone around “to assure us that nothing bad was going to happen to their children,” said Vitas, Tondo, housewife Lilet Manicad, who confessed to being wary of the vaccine after watching TV reports linking Dengvaxia to the death of several children. She still believes those reports, she said, because “they were reported on TV.”
But it’s not that easy to go around, said Quezon City health worker Jesusa Montoya who said she became the target of threats at the height of the vaccine controversy.
“Neighbors in Barangay Culiat said that if something happened to their kids, they would not forgive me. But I told them they shouldn’t blame me because I also had my nephews and nieces vaccinated,” Montoya said.
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