Measles outbreak: It’s panic time

February 07, 2019

The deaths of 55 children from measles since last month in Metro Manila ought to trigger alarm among parents and shake them into action to have their kids vaccinated soonest and avoid falling sick from the dreaded and contagious airborne disease.

With the rise in measles cases attributed by the Department of Health to “low vaccine coverage because of the Dengvaxia scare,” perhaps parents driven into a panic mode over measles could effectively counter the prevailing fear of vaccines and its side effects, resulting from the hysteria whipped up by the controversial anti-dengue vaccine.

“We are declaring an outbreak as cases have increased in the past weeks,” Health Secretary Francisco Duque III announced the other day.

For the first three weeks of 2019, the DOH Epidemiology Bureau revealed that 169 cases of measles were recorded in Metro Manila, a far cry from the same period in 2018 when only 20 cases were recorded. But for the whole of 2018, measles cases jumped to 3,646 in Metro Manila, from just a mere 351 cases in 2017.

It was in December of 2017 that the Dengvaxia controversy jolted the nation’s consciousness. Sanofi, the French pharmaceutical company that developed Dengvaxia, said that “for those not previously infected by dengue virus, more cases of severe disease could occur following vaccination upon a subsequent dengue infection.”

In the aftermath, widespread hysteria prompted many parents to refuse having their children vaccinated, resulting in a 60 percent drop in vaccination coverage, according to the DOH.
But a lower immunization rate, as low as 32 percent, surfaced last October in a report published in Human Vaccines and Immunotherapeutics Journal, based on a study led by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine which conducted a resurvey of 1,500 participants.

The study revealed that “in 2015, a resounding majority of 93 percent of the participants classified themselves as ‘strongly agreeing’ that vaccines were important; in the 2018 resurvey, months after the Dengvaxia controversy burst into the open, that proportion had fallen to 32 percent.”

“The Sanofi announcement was a spark that fuelled the flames of underlying political ferment in the Philippines. Health authorities and immunization programmes cannot solve political tensions, but trust issues and potential areas of anxiety and possible dissent must be considered in advance of a pandemic. This is especially important in an era of social media and the ability for misinformation to be spread far and wide at the touch of a button,” explained Prof. Heidi Larson, lead author of the study.

DOH officials and others in the medical profession have criticized the chief of the Public Attorney’s Office, Persida Acosta, for “making claims without basis” as she relentlessly linked Dengvaxia to the deaths of children.

A group of over 50 doctors, also critical of the “politically motivated grandstanding” of Sen. Richard Gordon during the Senate hearings on Dengvaxia, warned: “The unnecessary fear and panic, largely brought about by the imprudent language and unsubstantiated accusations by persons whose qualifications to render any expert opinion on the matter are questionable, at best, have caused many parents to resist having their children avail of life-saving vaccines that our government gives.”

The country representative of the World Health Organization, Dr. Gundo Weiler, also warned low vaccination rates could lead to reemergence of other diseases like polio, diphtheria, and pertussis.

“The trust in vaccination has been challenged. I think it is important that we rebuild trust and pass on the message very clearly that Dengvaxia is unrelated to the very well-established vaccination programs that have been running in the country for many years and without any doubt has generated huge benefits for those who received vaccination,” Weiler said.

Indeed, mass immunization programs have largely eradicated dreaded diseases, including smallpox. The world was also seeing the demise of measles – a malady caused by an airborne virus that hits the very young, even babies and those still in the mother’s womb.

But widespread panic over Dengvaxia has made people wary of vaccines. Could panic over deadly measles get parents to trust life-saving vaccines again?