Health and government authorities are pleading with parents to vaccinate their children, noting that those who were not vaccinated accounted for most of the deaths.
Last year the number of measles cases soared by 547%, according to the Philippine Paediatric Society, to more than 5000 confirmed cases. And that number is climbing even higher in the first months of this year, causing chaos in children’s wards and overwhelming doctors in both urban and rural areas.
“Do not be lulled and complacent about it, because infants really need that,” President Rodrigo Duterte said about vaccines in a speech last month.
The spread of the disease is a huge setback to a country that had been on its way to eliminating measles in 2010 and it underscores the dangers of movements against vaccinations. Just over a decade ago, in 2005, the Philippines had almost no deaths from measles, according to the Philippine Foundation for Vaccination.
It also follows a global wave of measles outbreaks - with 6.7million cases worldwide in 2017 - including in parts of the US and Europe, similarly fed by misinformation.
The Health Department first declared the measles outbreak in Manila this week and has since expanded it across other areas. Cases have increased 122% compared with the same period last year.
Experts say the country has already been fighting the spread of the disease in more rural parts of the archipelago, where doctors struggle to get communities vaccinated. The Philippines’ Unicef representative, Lotta Sylwander, said the agency had been working with the country’s Ministry of Health to raise the alert level.
“But it seems like it was not until it reached Manila that it was declared an emergency,” she said.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque and other members of the medical community attribute the newfound fear of immunisation to a dengue vaccine scare last year.
The controversy began in 2017, when pharmaceutical company Sanofi Pasteur made a sudden announcement that its Dengvaxia vaccine could lead to severe cases of dengue among those who had not contracted the disease before. This threw concerned parents and the public into a frenzy, because Dengvaxia had been administered to more than 8000 public school pupils in a mass immunisation programme the year before.
The political blame game that followed included an investigation from the public attorney’s office into the deaths of 39 children.
Its officials prematurely linked a fraction of those deaths to the vaccine and health professionals later slammed the office for being unqualified to draw such conclusions.
The Centre for Media Freedom and Responsibility found that three major newspapers had concentrated on the “politics” of the scare and it said a broadcast network had sensationalised the issue. The media watchdog said local news outlets should have highlighted that the public attorney’s office’s findings were not conclusive and should not have been given so much prominence.
What the Health Department identifies as “vaccine hesitancy” also comes amid a resistance to immunisation in the West. Lulu Bravo, executive director of the Philippine Foundation for Vaccination, said the country had had its fair share of vaccination sceptics - but that they never had much impact until the dengue vaccine controversy.
“The anti-vaccine group was also being felt in the Philippines But it is not as huge as in the US or Europe,” she said.
She described how the foundation’s health workers were being called “child killers” when they went into communities, because so many people had heard that Dengvaxia caused death.
“They were being lambasted, insulted when they went into communities to do their deworming.”
Health authorities say they are focused on a mass immunisation campaign to counter the steep rise in measles cases. According to local media reports, they are forming measles “fast lines” in government hospitals. The armed forces are helping to deploy medical personnel to conflict and hard-to-reach areas.
Unicef’s Sylwander warned, however, that a massive advocacy campaign, ideally led by well-known personalities in the Philippines, was needed to counter the mistrust of vaccines in urban communities and the lack of awareness in rural areas. While the spike in measles deaths and media coverage had prompted more parents to inquire about vaccinations and their benefits, actual vaccinations continued to lag, she added.