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Polio Is Back in the Philippines, 19 Years After the Disease Was Eradicated

Anti-vaccine sentiments are growing in the country.

by Lia Savillo
23 September 2019, 9:45am

A child receives the polio vaccine during an anti-polio campaign in Manila on September 20, 2019. (Photo by Ted Aljibe via AFP)

Nineteen years after the Philippines was declared “polio-free,” the country’s Department of Health (DOH) on Thursday declared that the disease is back and has caused an outbreak, as anti-vaccine sentiments grow among Filipinos.

According to the DOH, they have recorded one polio case each in the provinces of Lanao Del Sur and Laguna, Rappler reported. Environmental samples also tested positive of poliovirus in the cities of Manila and Davao. The two cases and two environmental samples were enough reason to declare an epidemic or outbreak, DOH Secretary Francisco Duque III said.

The DOH identified low vaccination coverage, poor early surveillance of polio symptoms, and substandard sanitation practices as culprits in the disease’s reemergence. The government cut the country’s health budget by PHP14 billion (US$ 267,974,00) this year and plans to cut it by another PHP10 billion (US$ 191,410,000) in 2020, according to The Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Polio or poliomyelitis is a highly contagious disease caused by the poliovirus that invades the nervous system. Polio is spread when the stool of an infected person is introduced into the mouth of another person through contaminated water or food. In severe cases, it can lead to permanent paralysis or even death. Children below 5 years of age are the most vulnerable.

The best way to prevent polio is through vaccination but according to the DOH, the Philippines’ polio immunisation coverage is down to 66-68 percent, below the international standard of 95 percent.

This comes as Filipino parents continue to distrust vaccines. Last year, a study revealed that Filipinos’ trust in vaccination programs significantly dropped because of the highly politicised Dengvaxia issue that broke in 2017. Unlike the anti-vaccine movement in the West which was brought about by false beliefs that linked autism to vaccines, the trend in the Philippines started when government officials alleged that the dengue vaccine Dengvaxia caused deaths. No conclusive evidence have been been found to prove this. According to the study, Filipinos had a 93 percent trust in vaccines in 2015, before the Dengvaxia issue. In 2018, Filipinos’ trust in vaccines dropped to 32 percent, not only in Dengvaxia but in all forms of vaccines, including those for polio and measles.

This year alone, the Philippines has experienced a polio outbreak, a resurgence of measles, and a rise in cases of dengue, triggering a national health crisis.

The DOH is now trying to convince people to trust vaccines again. “We strongly urge parents, health workers, and local governments to fully participate in the synchronized polio vaccination. It is the only way to stop the polio outbreak and to protect your child against this paralyzing disease,” said Duque.

The health department plans to expand their polio vaccination campaign around the country and aims to reach 1.2 million children below 5 years old in Metro Manila.

polio eradication