Measles cases surge in PH as health experts urge people to get vaccinated

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Children with measles are confined at San Lazaro Hospital in Manila. (Inquirer.net photo)

THE number of measles cases in the Philippines has skyrocketed within the first two months of this year according to health experts and government officials. 

As of Saturday, March 2, the Philippine Department of Health (DOH) reported 16,349 measles cases and 261 resulting deaths since the beginning of this year.

Most measles cases came from Calabarzon with 3,877 cases and 78 deaths, followed by the National Capital Region with 3,617 cases and 76 deaths.

In a report released Friday, March 1, UNICEF warned that measles around the world were surging to “alarmingly high levels,” with ten countries—including the Philippines—accounting for the majority of the total increase. 

Outbreaks were also reported for several countries previously declared measles free.

Despite measles being highly preventable, 98 countries saw an increase in measles cases in 2018 compared to 2017, according to the report.  The top three countries with the highest increases between 2017 and 2018 were Ukraine (30,338), the Philippines (13,192), and Brazil (10,262).

Though UNICEF’s own data differed from that collected by the DOH, it did show a sharp uptick in cases in a short amount of time.

Looking at the Philippines alone, UNICEF reported 12,736 measles cases and 203 related deaths within the first two months of this year alone—just a few thousand less than its recorded  15,599 measles cases reported for the country in all of 2018.

Health experts and government authorities urge for vaccinations

Measles is one of the most highly contagious of airborne infectious diseases and can spread from an infected person’s breaths, coughs, or sneezes.  According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), measles is so contagious that someone can contract the virus from an infected person even two hours after the person has left a room.

But measles is also highly preventable through immunization, and health experts say those not getting vaccinated are making themselves unnecessarily vulnerable to the potentially deadly disease.

“This is a wake up call.  We have a safe, effective and inexpensive vaccine against a highly contagious disease—a vaccine that has saved almost a million lives every year over the last two decades,” said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF’s Executive Director. 

UNICEF joined others in citing “vaccine hesitancy” as being a major enabler of measles outbreaks in both developed and developing countries.

“Almost all of these cases are preventable, and yet children are getting infected even in places where there is simply no excuse,” said Fore.  “Measles may be the disease, but, all too often, the real infection is misinformation, mistrust and complacency. We must do more to accurately inform every parent, to help us safely vaccinate every child.”

Vaccine hesitancy has been especially true in the Philippines where deaths allegedly caused by the now banned dengue vaccine, Dengvaxia, triggered a vaccine scare.  DOH undersecretary Eric Domingo said early February that vaccination rates among children were down to 60 percent as a result of the Dengvaxia scare.

The Philippine government said Friday that it would file criminal charges against executives of the Dengvaxia-manufacturing pharmaceutical firm Sanofi Pasteur over the at least 10 deaths allegedly connected to the vaccine.

In addressing the vaccine hesitancy, Philippine government agencies have been working on mass immunization campaigns.  It previously said it hoped to meet a coverage rate of 95 percent, or roughly 12 million people by March.

According to the DOH, most affected to measles were children ages four years and younger with 4,911 cases and 124 deaths, and those under nine months old with 4,222 cases and 99 deaths.

The department added that 9,975 of the 16,349 who contracted measles and 209 of the 261 people that died so far this year were not vaccinated.

UNICEF said that it will support the Philippine government in conducting a campaign to vaccinate nine million children cross 17 regions.  It said it will also utilize social media and other efforts to encourage apprehensive parents to vaccinate their children.

“These cases haven’t happened overnight,” said Fore.  “Just as the serious outbreaks we are seeing today took hold in 2018, lack of action today will have disastrous consequences for children tomorrow.” 

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