The public perception of the importance of vaccines for children declined during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic in 52 out of 55 countries, according to the Vaccine Confidence Project published by UNICEF. The study found that the importance of vaccines for children declined by about 25% in the Philippines.
The UNICEF report warned against the growing threat of vaccine hesitancy. A number of factors have been cited including uncertainty about the response to the pandemic, growing access to misleading information, declining trust in expertise and political polarization. It added that vaccine hesitancy in the Philippines could be attributed to cultural factors, as well as concerns on vaccine safety.
UNICEF’s Catherine Russel noted that scientists had rapidly developed COVID-19 vaccines that saved countless lives. However, fear and disinformation about all types of vaccines circulated as widely as the virus itself. “[These] data [are] a worrying warning signal. We cannot allow confidence in routine immunizations to become another victim of the pandemic. Otherwise, the next wave of deaths could be of more children with measles, diphtheria, or other preventable diseases,” she said.
From the recent UNICEF disclosure, it appears that more needs to be done to promote accurate and timely information and dispel myths and misinformation about the value of vaccination.
Amidst the raging COVID-19 pandemic, I started writing for BusinessWorld to serve as one of the platforms for medically verified health information. George Orwell, nom de plume of Eric Arthur Blair, penned an essay in which he identified four reasons why people write.
In his piece “Why I write,” Orwell said people write out of sheer egoism or aesthetic enthusiasm. Another reason is historical impulse or the desire to see things as they are and to establish facts and keep them for posterity purposes. Finally, Orwell said people write for political purpose. It is their aspiration to change thoughts, behaviors and actions for a certain cause.
I write both for history and political purpose. Health is one matter that this column fiercely advocated for to record the once-in-a-generation health crisis, as well as emphasize the important lessons that can be learned from the pandemic so that they will never be forgotten.
In relation to writing for history, one of the crucial messages that this column has highlighted together with the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) is that vaccines help save millions of lives around the world each year. It is estimated that vaccines prevent 4 to 5 million deaths yearly. Vaccines can also lower the burden of care on families and healthcare systems, reduce disruption to our lives and livelihoods, lower health inequities and contribute to broader well-being and productivity. The fact that vaccines can help save lives, bring back mobility and reopen schools and the economy can be well demonstrated in the country’s fight against COVID-19.
On writing for political purpose, I have often stressed that the lessons learned from the pandemic should constantly be repeated in the public discourse. Failing to remember these valuable lessons can mean committing the same mistakes and suffering from graver consequences in the future.
The first lesson from the biopharmaceutical industry perspective is that innovations from test kits, vaccines to treatments have saved lives. Moving beyond COVID-19, the value of biopharmaceutical innovation can be applied to other communicable and noncommunicable diseases that continue to affect Filipinos. As we transition from the pandemic phase, we can start putting a spotlight on diseases that were neglected due to COVID-19. Policies that are conducive to innovation should also be in place.
The second important lesson is that public and private partnerships have enabled the development and manufacturing upscaling of needed diagnostics, vaccines and medicines. Moving beyond COVID-19, public-private partnerships can be applied to areas that could enable responsive regulatory processes, more efficient supply chains and deeper funding mechanisms so that Filipinos can access needed vaccines and medicines in their time of need.
The final lesson to move forward is the need to strengthen our health systems. This requires more investment in healthcare. The employment of efficient referral networks, availability of medicines and vaccines and massive information campaigns have proven crucial as families, communities and the nation fight back against COVID-19. Moving forward, health systems can be strengthened with the full rollout of the Universal Healthcare Act, National Integrated Cancer Control Act and other laws.
I will always be grateful to BusinessWorld and its editor-in-chief, Wilfredo G. Reyes (whom I call Wolfy), as well as my current editor Norman P. Aquino, for giving me the precious space to inform the public about crucial information they need to make informed decisions. I am compelled to write for health because the pandemic has shown us that it has wider implications on people’s movement, education, security, business and the economy.
Allow me to conclude by quoting Cicero: Salus populi suprema lex esto. The health of the people should be the supreme law. No matter how well-intentioned we are in providing incentives to stimulate our economy, overlooking investments in public health will only keep us moving in place.
To get ahead, the road should be paved by a healthy population.
Teodoro B. Padilla is the executive director of the Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Association of the Philippines, which represents the biopharmaceutical medicine and vaccine industry in the country. Its members are in the forefront of research and development efforts for COVID-19 and other diseases that affect Filipinos.