FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - February 9, 2019 - 12:00am

The alert raised by the Department of Health over the measles outbreak is now nationwide. In a matter of days, the alert spread out from the Mega Manila area to as far as Zamboanga in the south and the Ilocos provinces in the north.

Hundreds of people, mostly children, are now confined in hospitals designated by the health authorities. A significant number succumbed to the many complications arising out of infection from the airborne virus.

This is an epidemic that is not supposed to happen anymore. Years ago government offered free vaccination against the virus that causes measles. Unfortunately, so many children were not brought in for vaccination since the scare over Dengvaxia. Because of this, as many as two million children are deemed exposed to the epidemic.

Some have blamed the Public Attorney’s Office for the apparently widespread distrust for the vaccination program. That assignment of blame is misplaced.

The Public Attorney’s Office is merely doing its job. When numerous parents blamed the deaths of their children on the controversial vaccine, they trusted only the Public Attorney to conduct an inquiry on the matter. True, the Public Attorney might have appeared too zealous in its investigation, but it would not have continued with this is there was no case to build.

Only this week, the House of Representatives recommended the filing of charges against former president Noynoy Aquino, former health secretary Janet Garin and former budget secretary Florencio Abad over the Dengvaxia controversy. The House panel is convinced the three conspired to hastily purchase the Dengvaxia vaccine in large quantities shortly before the 2016 elections.

At the time the procurement was made, the vaccine still has to undergo some more testing to rule out any dangerous side effect. But the former officials, with just weeks left in office, hastily purchased the vaccine and applied them to thousands of children almost haphazardly.

The very poor records keeping of the vaccination program attests to the undue haste. There is no master list of the children that received the vaccine. The sloppiness is frightening.

The community of experts has yet to come to a consensus over the relationship between the vaccine and the reported deaths. Early on, as the controversy was beginning to blossom, the pharmaceutical giant that sold us this vaccine agreed to take back the unused stock and refund the Philippine government for it. That was more of a public relations move than anything else.

At any rate, the three officials the congressmen now want charged did demonstrate an alarming lack of prudence in arriving at what might be a negligent decision. The Dengvaxia controversy sufficiently alarmed parents who have since refused to have their children vaccinated. Now, the unvaccinated children are exposed to a different virus.

Before the Dengvaxia controversy, parents had full trust in the various vaccination programs undertaken by our health authorities. That trust has been broken by the utter negligence displayed by the previous administration.

Should the ongoing measles epidemic take more casualties, the previous administration should bear at least moral responsibility for this. They broke the trust so vital in making the various vaccination programs feasible.

Last week, President Duterte no less appealed to parents to trust our health authorities and submit their children for vaccination.  Even if he is the most trusted Filipino today, the President cannot quickly repair the loss of trust that has happened.

Besides, it now appears there has been systemic failing in the vaccination program itself.

The first failing was Noynoy Aquino’s. He invested scarce public funds on an anti-dengue vaccination program even if this was not near the top of urgent infection threats. He could have invested the money in anti-measles vaccines which are tried and tested and, as is now obvious, necessary.

Health authorities now tell us that 90 percent of those infected in this most recent epidemic have not been vaccinated. Dr. Susan Mercado of the Red Cross says the current epidemic would not be happening if our health authorities maintained its immunization target at about 95 percent.

But even if we had enough vaccines and enough health technicians to administer them, there is still the chasm of distrust to contend with. The children cannot be forcibly vaccinated if they do not trust the program.

The only way to effectively fight the measles epidemic is to undertake mass vaccinations of children. Trust in this program will have to be rebuilt very quickly. That is easier said than done.

Given the situation, we need a broad campaign involving grassroots groups and religious leaders to convince alarmed parents that accepting vaccination for our children is the best defense against the ongoing epidemic.

Anyone with any credibility – movie stars, admired athletes, TV personalities – should be pressed to the service. It would be nice if the Catholic hierarchy issues an advisory to parishioners. Corporations could fund advertising campaigns. Local governments and village leaders must participate in the information campaign.

The message needs to be urgently delivered. Massive vaccination against measles is the last trench we have to stop this epidemic. This epidemic is not something that will run out soon.   

For its part, public health authorities must stockpile the vaccine and distribute them quickly. The entire public health apparatus must be called to action.

What a pathetic country we will appear to be in the eyes of the world if ancient diseases effectively preventable by modern vaccines run rampant. The lives of so many children are at stake here.

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