Marisol Peñaranda, a 20-year-old mother from Tacloban, Philippines, wipes her tears as she looks achingly at her daughter’s picture on her phone. Karen Joy, two years old, died recently from measles. She was one of 3.1 million children in the Philippines who were unvaccinated and remained vulnerable to childhood diseases including measles.
The recent measles outbreak in the Philippines saw 28,362 reported cases and 355 deaths in the first quarter of 2019 alone. This is a staggering 369 per cent increase from the same period in 2018 and exceeding the entire caseload of 2018. From 2017 to 2018, the Philippines had the second-highest increase in measles cases globally.
Childhood immunization coverage has been declining sharply in recent years, from 88 per cent in 2014 to 73 per cent in 2017, opening up a wide gap for diseases such as measles to spread fast and wide.
Add to that a very low population immunity in the country at 55 per cent, far below the ideal 95 per cent, which would protect communities from outbreaks.
With a significant number of the population unvaccinated, the risk of transmission naturally increases. This is particularly true for children wherein 53 per cent of measles cases are among children below five years of age. But for children like Karen Joy, help had come too late.
“I regret that I wasn’t able to take care of her,” Mirasol laments.
Misinformation and misperceptions about vaccines combined with supply and demand challenges, problems with vaccine management and forecasting, an inadequate number of health workers, and poverty all contributed to a health crisis.
The vaccine resistance clearly puts at risk children’s health since vaccines have proven to be safe and effective in saving lives. UNICEF has been supporting the government’s immunization program for decades and have helped eradicate childhood diseases such as polio and maternal and neonatal tetanus. The measles vaccine has been used in the country for decades, saving countless lives.
As its overall support to immunization, UNICEF has been supporting the Department of Health to improve monitoring of the immunization programmes including Rapid Coverage Assessment in priority areas to ensure that every child, wherever they may be, will be reached by life-saving vaccines. UNICEF also helped facilitate procurement of six million doses of measles and polio vaccines to increase supplies in areas with active measles transmission.
Equally important, UNICEF has been supporting the government develop and disseminate messages that will educate and encourage the public to get their children vaccinated.
Toward the end of the measles vaccination campaign in March, a rapid decline in newly reported measles cases has been recorded in the initial assessment of the Philippines Department of Health Measles-Rubella Surveillance Reports 2019.
“Vaccines work,” says Carla Orozco, UNICEF Health Specialist. “If we increase population immunity, we can help save lives."
"But we have a collective duty—parents and caregivers, local leaders, health workers and UNICEF—in ensuring every Filipino child, especially in hard-to-reach areas and those living in difficult conditions, gets vaccinated and outbreaks prevented,” she concludes.