EDITORIAL — Humanly possible

The Philippine Star
EDITORIAL � Humanly possible

The country marks World Immunization Week as outbreaks of pertussis or whooping cough continue to be reported in different regions, posing threats particularly to infants. Vaccines against pertussis along with diphtheria and tetanus for infants have been around for decades, with boosters administered in later years. As the World Health Organization has noted with concern, however, progress on immunization has slipped since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sudden outbreaks of diphtheria and measles have increasingly been reported, according to the WHO. In 2022, the number of children vaccinated worldwide increased by over four million compared to the previous year when the pandemic threat was just starting to ease. Yet the WHO estimates that about 20 million children still failed to get one or more of the widely available vaccines in 2022.

Apart from the pandemic, health experts blame the immunization slowdown on economic downturns, armed conflicts and vaccine hesitancy. In the Philippines, the hysteria over the dengue vaccine Dengvaxia raised vaccine hesitancy even before the COVID pandemic. Disinformation and misinformation over COVID vaccines also affected long-established immunization campaigns particularly against measles.

Vaccine hesitancy was blamed for the re-emergence of polio in the Philippines in September 2019. The disease, which causes lifelong paralysis, returned after 19 years of the country being polio-free. A measles outbreak was also officially declared in February 2019. Nearly 900 children since then have died of measles in the Philippines, according to WHO data. Since the expanded immunization program was launched globally in 1974, nearly 94 million of the 154 million lives saved were due to protection by measles vaccines. Of the 154 million, about 101 million were infants. Immunization has eradicated smallpox and nearly wiped out polio. In 2022, however, an estimated 33 million children worldwide missed a measles vaccine dose.

Initially focused on just six childhood illnesses – diphtheria, measles, pertussis, polio, tetanus and tuberculosis – the Essential Program on Immunization has expanded to 13 universally recommended vaccines across all ages, plus 17 other vaccines with context-specific recommendations. The WHO considers the global vaccine campaign as one of humanity’s greatest achievement. Yet millions of children, including many in the Philippines, are still not protected by vaccines.

As the global campaign reaches its half-century mark this year, there will be more widespread dissemination of vaccines for malaria, new COVID strains, respiratory syncytial virus, meningitis, cholera and Ebola. World Immunization Week, from April 24 to 30, is pursuing the theme of immunization for all – as many as humanly possible.

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