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Path to herd immunity

BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - March 7, 2021 - 12:00am

The vaccines have finally started arriving. From what I read, the majority of the vaccines ordered will be coming in the third quarter of this year.

Any country which wants “herd immunity” from COVID-19 will require around 80 percent of its population to be vaccinated. When most of the population is immune to an infectious disease, this provides indirect protection to those who are not immune to the disease. This is called herd immunity or sometimes also called herd protection.

If 80 percent of a population is immune to a virus due to vaccination, four out of every five people who encounter someone with a disease won’t get sick and won’t spread the disease any further. In this way, the spread of the infectious diseases is kept under control.

Measles, mumps, polio and chicken pox are examples of infectious diseases that were once very common but are now rare because vaccines helped to establish herd immunity. Sometimes there are still outbreaks of vaccine preventable diseases in communities with lower vaccine coverage and, therefore, there is no herd immunity.

The Philippines will need to vaccinate around 88 million people to achieve herd immunity. We will have to purchase around 176 million doses since each person needs two doses. The largest potential order that I am aware of is 30 million doses from the Serum Institute of India. I understand that this has a very good chance of pushing through, especially with the efforts of the very energetic Philippine Ambassador to India Dondon Bagatsing.

The second problem will be distribution and the qualified personnel to inject each person. I suppose in the large metropolitan areas like Metro Manila, Cebu and Davao this will not be a major problem. However, in the provincial areas the lack of logistical facilities, medical equipment (like syringes) and qualified personnel could pose serious problems.

A major problem that also needs to be overcome is the reluctance of many people to allow themselves to be vaccinated. This reluctance or even fear is not confined to the lower classes. I have heard even college educated people state that they do not trust vaccination. The main cause is a lot of health disinformation and, in some cases, even conspiracy theories.

In 2019, the World Health Organization declared vaccine hesitancy, a reluctance to vaccinate, a top 10 threat to public health. The vaccines that saw a decline in usage were for such diseases as measles, mumps and rubella.

Here in the Philippines, there have been sometimes conflicting reports about the different vaccines, especially in social media. For example, I read that there was a survey among PGH physicians that said that 95 percent would refuse to use a certain vaccine. On the other hand, government spokesmen have been consistently defending the efficacy of the same vaccine.

In a survey published by the Financial Times, the question asked was: Would you get a COVID-19 vaccine shot if and when it becomes available? The respondents who answered YES ranging from 50 percent to a little over 60 percent were from France, Poland, Germany, United States, Hongkong, Italy, India, China and Spain. It was only in the United Kingdom that those answering YES reached 80 percent. The rest of the respondents answered either NO or Don’t Know. The Philippines was not included in this global survey. Obviously there is a need for education and an information drive if countries want to reach the percentage of vaccinated persons needed for herd immunity.

COVAX and future

When the pandemic started, it was clear that there was a need for a powerful global system to coordinate and fight the pandemic on a global basis. The immediate need was for a way to allow developing countries to have access to the vaccines. At the start, wealthy countries were buying only for their own needs and even preventing vaccine makers to sell to other countries until their own needs were completely. Thus, the term “vaccine nationalism” has become a highly controversial issue.

By July 15, 2020,165 countries representing 60 percent of the human population established COVAX. This is a global initiative aimed at equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines. It was started in April 2020 by the World Health Organization, European Union and France with the aim of coordinating international resources to enable the equitable access of COVID-19 diagnostics, treatments and vaccines.

At the beginning, the two richest countries in the world – China and the United States – refused to join COVAX. Trump was then still the president in the USA. With the assumption of Biden in the presidency, the United States quickly joined and is now the largest contributor. Its donation is now $2.0 billion as part of its total pledge of $4.0 billion. As far as I know China has still not joined.

COVAX is reported to have access to around 2 billion doses of COVID vaccines. At this point, 92 countries including the Philippines are eligible to receive the COVAX donated vaccines. The Philippines has already received its first shipment.

In the future, the world must understand that globalization has made any pandemic a global problem. Yuval Noah Harari wrote:

“Even the richest people in the most developed countries have a personal interest to protect the poorest people in the least developed countries. If a new virus jumps from a bat to a human in a poor village in some remote jungle, within a few days that virus can take a walk down Wall Street.”

Humankind cannot prevent the occurrence of new viruses. Hopefully the lesson learned from this pandemic is that the failure to respond immediately and effectively was a political failure by politicians in almost every country in the world. And not one of scientists and health workers.

*      *      *

An invitation for writers of all ages: Young Writers’ Hangouts via Zoom on March 13 & 27, 2-3 p.m. with Kim Derla and Divine Gil Reyes.

The adult series begins on March 20 with Danton Remoto on “Autobiography as Fiction,” 2-3:30 p.m. Contact writethingsph@gmail.com. 0945.2273216

Email: elfrencruz@gmail.com

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