MANILA — The resurgence of the polio virus, eradicated in the Philippines nearly 2 decades ago, has put the spotlight on the raging battle against a lingering anti-vaccine sentiment, which is also blamed for the outbreak of measles and dengue earlier this year.
A 3-year-old girl in Lanao del Sur province became the first confirmed polio case in the country since 2000, a development not unexpected with last year’s vaccination coverage down to 66 percent, way below the 95-percent target.
“It is deeply disconcerting,” said Oyun Dendevnorov, UNICEF’s Philippines representative, noting that vaccination was “the only and best protection against polio.”
But as in the case of measles and dengue, the Department of Health (DOH) is grappling with a certain level of public distrust over its immunization program, which includes the polio vaccine.
The writing was on the wall, vaccine experts said early last year at the height of congressional investigations into the Aquino administration’s P3.5-billion rollout of the anti-dengue vaccine, Dengvaxia, in 2016.
The program covered around 830,000 individuals and several deaths were later blamed on the vaccine, findings on which remained the subject of debate. In the meantime, the vaccine was pulled out from the Philippine market.
Dr. Lulu Bravo, a vaccination expert, said “sensationalism” of the Dengvaxia investigation clearly diminished public trust in the government’s overall immunization program.
“All vaccines are then condemned and the result is devastating as you can see,” said Bravo, who heads the vaccine study group of the University of the Philippines Manila’s National Institutes of Health.
The problem isn’t confined in the Philippines with anti-vaccine movements also sweeping across parts of the United States and Europe.
The World Health Organization listed “vaccine hesitancy” as among the 10 threats to global health this year, including Ebola, the influenza pandemic, and anti-microbial resistance.
People turn away from vaccines, a WHO advisory group said, partly because of “complacency, inconvenience in accessing vaccines, and lack of confidence.”
In the Philippines, hesitancy may be a mix of all these factors.
But critics have also found a common target in chief public attorney Persida Acosta, who led the filing of criminal cases against officials for the death of several children allegedly because of Dengvaxia.
Her highly charged statements in media interviews, her detractors said, helped drag public confidence in vaccines in general, not just Dengvaxia.
Acosta reached out to ABS-CBN News on Friday, a day after the DOH announced that the polio virus had staged an unexpected comeback.
She shared social media posts from supporters saying the Public Attorney’s Office should not be used as an “excuse” for the lower immunization coverage.
One post said Acosta was “not against any other proven vaccine.”
Bravo said countering anti-vaccine sentiments would require “effective communication” of how immunization programs had worked over the years.
“Political support and political will need to be there, too, with science as the true evidence,” she told ABS-CBN News.
“Unfortunately, doctors are not exactly good communicators and are fearful of being lambasted in media.”
The introduction of the oral polio vaccine, for instance, brought cases down by more than 99 percent, the WHO said in a statement.
“More than 18 million people are able to walk today who would otherwise have been paralyzed, and 1.5 million childhood deaths have been averted thanks to the polio vaccine,” it said.
Dendevnorov, in the WHO website, warned: “As long as one single child remains infected, children across the country and even beyond are at risk of contracting polio.”