DESPITE THE success of the measles immunization campaign, the disease — also called rubella — should not be taken for granted, said Dr. Natasha S. Crowcroft, World Health Organization’s senior technical adviser for measles and rubella, in an August webinar by Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF).  

The viral respiratory disease is highly contagious, even compared to coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), with children under the age of five being particularly vulnerable. Common complications include diarrhea and ear infection. Severe complications include pneumonia (or infection of the lungs) and encephalitis (or swelling of the brain).  

Herd immunity against the disease can only be achieved if 95% of the population are vaccinated, said Dr. Choi Kin-Wing, an infectious diseases specialist at The Chinese University of Hong Kong Medical Center.   

According to the Department of Health (DoH), a total of 1,716 frontline health workers and health education and promotion officers were trained for the Measles, Rubella, and Oral Polio Vaccine Supplemental Immunization Activity (MR-OPV SIA), which concluded in March with an immunization coverage rate of 90.3% for MR and 87.4% for OPV.  

“The national communications team was able to equip health workers with skills in interpersonal communication, social mobilization, and the handling of refusals,” the DoH’s Communications Management Unit told BusinessWorld.  

Of the 850,678 refusals during the campaign, 365,791 were successfully vaccinated, translating to a 43% conversion among the number of refusals who still got vaccinated. 

“There has been progress in the capacity of our healthcare providers in educating and encouraging these parents to have their children vaccinated,” DoH Undersecretary Dr. Ma. Rosario S. Vergeire said. “The program aims to keep this momentum of behavior change in the community and increased communication skills of healthcare providers so this could transcend into routine immunization.”  

Dr. Vergeire added that misconceptions on vaccination were addressed through the help of local religious leaders. During the campaign, these leaders joined barangay health workers in counseling the parents of eligible children in vaccinating them.   

Imee J. Japitana, nurse activity manager of an MSF project in Marawi City, shared that the organization supplements its activities in combating measles with information on how to protect and prevent it.  

“What the team did was to explain that vaccines do not cause illness, but rather provide protection,” Ms. Japitana told BusinessWorld in a separate e-mail. “Our staff also explains this when parents bring their children to the clinic for primary healthcare consultation, since the doctor has to check the child’s vaccination status.”  

The way forward, the DoH said, is the adoption of the MR-OPV SIA in the different aspects of the National Immunization Program, which is also working on strengthening routine catch-up vaccination for those children who missed their scheduled vaccination.  

The age range of measles cases in the Philippines is less than a year to 78 years old, with a median age of four years old. Fifty percent of those who died from measles are between one and four years old, according to DoH data from February 2020. Of the fatalities, 80% had not been vaccinated. — Patricia B. Mirasol