Measles infection cases have soared in the Philippines, killing scores of children since the beginning of the year, officials said. The public is still reeling from a 2017 vaccine scare related to dengue fever shots.
Philippines' officials on Monday reported 136 people dying from measles in the country since the start of the year. Most of the victims were children and some 40 percent of the deceased were between 1 and 4 years old.
The medical authorities also said there were 8,443 people infected with measles in the 105-million-strong country as of the 16th of February. That figure has almost doubled since the previous update just a week earlier.
Measles is a highly contagious airborne virus and can be spread through sneezing and coughing, as well as direct contact. In some cases, it can cause complications leading to death, with children and babies bearing the largest risk. Infections can be prevented with an easily accessible vaccine.
Duterte, Pacquiao endorse vaccination
On Monday, officials reported that many of the children who died of measles had not been inoculated.
Teams have been dispatched across the country for a massive vaccination drive which officials hope would contain the outbreak by April, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said. In a televised address on Friday, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte urged parents to immunize their children, and former world boxing champion Manny Pacquiao also supported the Department of Health's "Knock Out Tigdas" campaign, which cites a commonly-used name for measles in the Philippines.
Pacquiao, who now serves as senator in the Asian country, said that "in our fight against measles, we have to be together."
'No ifs, no buts'
Health Secretary Duque blames the disease's spread on the low immunization rate. Talking to the AP news agency, Duque said vaccines were "the absolute answer to this outbreak."
"No ifs, no buts, no conditions, you just have to bring your children and trust that the vaccines ... will save your children," he said.
Duque also said the government was working to restore trust in vaccines after a 2017 scandal involving the world's first dengue fever vaccine and its producer, French company Sanofi Pasteur. The Philippine government used their product to launch an anti-dengue immunization drive in 2016. Over 830,000 children were injected by Sanofi Pasteur shots by November 2017, when the company announced that research results indicated the vaccine might increase risk of severe disease for people who have never been exposed to the virus.
A subsequent inquiry by the Filipino government found deaths of three children may have been linked with the immunization.
World 'backsliding' on measles
Measles infections are on the rise worldwide, surging some 50 percent in 2018 according to most recent data. In addition to outbreaks in developing countries, many parents in Europe and North America contribute to the problem by refusing to immunize their children over an online myth that vaccines cause autism and other health issues.
Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) said the efforts to halt the spread of measles were "backsliding" with infection rates growing "in all regions."
"This is not an isolated problem," said Katherine O'Brien, WHO director of immunization, vaccines, and biologicals.
"We do have the tools to prevent measles," she told reporters in Geneva. "We're backsliding because of the failure to vaccinate."
dj/msh (dpa, AP, Reuters, AFP)