MANILA – A widespread distrust of vaccines has led to a serious measles outbreak in the Philippines, where nearly 7,000 cases and more than 100 deaths had been registered by health authorities, something that led to the start on Saturday of a campaign to vaccinate around 5,000 children per day.
Around 2.6 million children under the age of five have not been vaccinated in the country, still affected by the scandal surrounding Dengvaxia, a controversial anti-dengue vaccine widely used in Philippine schools between 2014 and 2017, which has been associated with the death of 39 children.
Its manufacturer, French pharmaceutical company Sanofi Pasteur, admitted in 2017 that the vaccine carried adverse effects and vaccinated people who contracted dengue for the first time suffered more severe symptoms.
Edelyn Darios, 27, acknowledged she did not get her six-month-old younger son vaccinated against any disease due to the collective fear of vaccines generated by the Dengvaxia scandal.
Edelyn told EFE at a health center in the heavily populated Baseco district of Manila that she had been afraid, but had changed her mind now and brought her three offspring to be vaccinated as children were increasingly falling sick in the district.
On Saturday the Philippine Red Cross launched an ambitious campaign in Baseco to vaccinate between 2000 to 5000 children during the weekend, in health centers as well as through door-to-door drives with the help of 250 volunteers, who would educate families about the importance of preventing measles, a deadly disease which spreads through the air.
Susy Mercado, a Red Cross doctor coordinating the campaign – which will be repeated in other parts of the country until March – said that she had never seen such a high number of measles cases in such a short period, and multiple outbreaks had occurred in different places across the country.
Between Jan. 1 and Feb. 13, 6,921 cases of measles – 30 percent of them in Manila – and 115 deaths had been registered in the country, with most of the casualties consisting of children under the age of 5, Philippine Health Secretary Francisco Duque said on Saturday.
In 2017, before the Dengvaxia scandal, 2,400 measles cases had been recorded in the Philippines during the whole year, but the number climbed to 18,000 in 2018 while the immunization rate dropped from 73 percent to 55 percent.
At the Baseco health center, Clarisa Mistura brought her 11-year old son to be vaccinated, as her other nine-year-old has contracted measles, although fortunately, he is out of danger.
Mistura said she was very worried as cases were increasing day by day, having already lost a child to the disease in 1999.
Aisa Lontoc, 23, came out on the street hearing the calls of one of the Red Cross teams going door-to-door and got her one-year-old vaccinated with a second dose.
She said the child had already been vaccinated on schedule when it was nine months old, but she wanted to reinforce the protection as doctors had assured her there was no risk of an overdose.
The San Lorenzo hospital in Manila, which specializes in contagious disease, has been struggling to cope with the massive influx of measles cases, with 2,000 patients being admitted and 75 deaths since the beginning of the year.
“All the deaths have taken place within 48 hours of the admission, as these were cases which arrived in a very serious condition due to pneumonia,” said Dr Ferdinand De Guzman, director of the hospital, which has been receiving up to 75 cases per day.
Guzman said there was a direct link between the rapid increase in the cases and the poorest districts of the capital, where one-third of Manila’s 13-million-strong population lives in irregular and often unhealthy shelters.
“We get a lot of cases where siblings or neighbors come together as patients. Measles spreads very fast through the air, and in poor communities, it is common for up to 10 people o live in small rooms together, with just one toilet among them in most of the cases,” he said.
Tents have been set up in the hospital’s courtyard with around 100 extra beds to ease the congestion in the rooms, as the minors admitted to the hospital are accompanied by their parents and other family members.
Jennina, 25, with her eight-month-old daughter Xymien in her arms, told EFE that she had come three days ago after rashes appeared on her daughter’s skin and she developed fever, adding that Xymien had not been vaccinated because the vaccine was not available in the health center in her neighborhood.