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[MANILA] Authorities in the Philippines are working to counter ‘vaccine hesitancy’ which is being blamed for an outbreak of measles. Since the start of the year, 189 of the almost 12,000 people have died after contracting the disease.

In January, the World Health Organisation (WHO) included vaccine hesitancy — the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate — among the top ten health threats facing the world in 2019. One consequence of vaccine hesitancy has been outbreaks of measles in the US and other countries.

“A lot of children in the region have not received measles shots and we take this as the reason why there was a spike in the number of cases”

Rio Magpantay, Department of Health

Vaccine hesitancy is also being cited by authorities in the Philippines as one of the causes for the spike in measles, a highly contagious illness caused by a virus that is spread through the air.

The Philippines’ Department of Health (DOH) defines vaccine hesitancy as “the delay in acceptance or refusal of vaccines despite availability of vaccination services”. In the Philippines, immunisation against measles, mumps, rubella, typhoid and other infectious diseases is administered free by the government.

However, Philippine health officials blame the decline in immunisations on the Dengvaxia scare. Dengvaxia, a vaccine against dengue adopted for use in December 2015, was withdrawn two years later amid reports of adverse effects. 

"Loss of public confidence and trust in vaccines in the immunisation programme brought about by the Dengvaxia controversy has been documented as one of many factors that contributed to ‘vaccine hesitancy’ in the country,” a DOH statement said.
 
In Cagayan Valley in northern Philippines, measles cases shot up by 2,500 per cent, says Rio Magpantay, the regional director of DOH Region II. “A lot of children in the region have not received measles shots and we take this as the reason why there was a spike in the number of cases [of measles].”
 
Five other regions, including Metro Manila, have reported spikes in the number of measles cases.
 
Health secretary Francisco Duque III said while most of the population has been vaccinated, a large number remains uncovered.
 
The need to get more people immunised was underscored by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte appearing on national television to urge Filipinos to get their children immunised against measles. The Catholic Church in the Philippines has issued a similar call. Last week, a massive immunisation drive was launched in Manila and five provincial regions, with doctors and health workers fanning out on a house-to-house campaign. “Aside from the community public health centres, the vaccination drive is being taken to the malls. We immunise even on Sundays and Saturdays since most parents say that they have to go to work on weekdays,” says Duque III.  
 
According to Duque III, if the vaccine hesitation trend continues, government may compel parents to have their children vaccinated. “We are reviewing the experiences of other countries that have mandatory immunisation programmes,” he said.
 
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.