The Philippines recently experienced a drastic drop in vaccine confidence, posing a threat to public health.
Vaccines can save up to three million lives annually, according to the World Health Organization. High vaccine coverage (>95 percent) leads to community immunity which provides protection even to individuals who have not yet been immunized. Some vaccine-preventable diseases include measles, polio, pneumonia, dengue, rubella, mumps and tetanus.
There are 13 recommended vaccinations for children and young adults from 0 to 18 years old. But misinformation has led parents to postpone or forego necessary immunization for their children.
The vaccine hesitancy rate of 33 percent is putting lives at risk and undermines the previous achievements of vaccination. The return of polio, when the country was already declared polio-free back in 2000, is a consequence of vaccine hesitancy.
The low vaccine coverage and vaccine hesitancy is multifactorial, as pointed out by Department of Health Assistant Secretary Dr. Enrique “Eric” Tayag.
A vaccines advisory group to WHO cited complacency, inconvenience in assessing vaccines, and lack of confidence as among the reasons why people choose not to vaccinate. It added that support for healthcare professionals, especially those in communities, is crucial so that they may provide trusted, credible information on vaccines.
With this, restoring vaccine confidence and establishing resilience were the highlights of this year’s Philippine National Immunization Conference, organized by the Philippine Foundation for Vaccination (PFV) together with the Philippine Medical Association (PMA).
“Way back in the ‘90s, we were really putting vaccination at the forefront of the public health program. We successfully increased vaccine coverage to a very high level—much higher than the United States, and diminish child mortality and morbidity. The Philippines was the first country to do national immunization drives, wherein millions of children were vaccinated as catch up. [Now] we are becoming the biggest vaccine-hesitant country in the world,” lamented PFV executive director Dr. Lulu Bravo.
Emphasizing the role of doctors and medical societies in strengthening vaccine confidence, Dr. Josefina Carlos, a pediatrics infectious disease specialist and moderator in one of the 20th PNIC panel discussions said, “There is no one strategy that works to address vaccine hesitancy. However, we are good influencers as healthcare providers.”
Effective communication and rapport building is vital in dealing with patients. Dr. Carlos reiterated the importance of clear and consistent messages in addressing patient concerns to create a positive experience and to motivate them to be proactive in disease prevention through vaccination. She also underscored the crucial value of spreading accurate information on vaccines and vaccination.
PMA vice president and scientific chair of this year’s PNIC, Dr. Benny Atienza also suggested a patient-centric approach in promoting vaccines as a cost-effective healthcare tool that prevents suffering and deaths.
“For example, chicken pox vaccination is affordable. But an unvaccinated child will miss two weeks of school if they’re infected. If the child is sick, the parents also can’t go to work and would need to pay high medical bills. An individual can only get this type of viral infection once in life but it can make a big effect on the child and his family and community,” said Dr. Atienza.
Through the DOH’s Expanded Program on Immunization, vaccines are being made accessible for more Filipinos nationwide. Making vaccination as part of PhilHealth benefits, according to PFV president Dr. Shelley dela Vega, would help increase coverage and contribute to the objectives of the Universal Health Care Act.
“People would not have to discuss if a vaccine is expensive or not because it is already free under PhilHealth. That is the essence of Universal Healthcare.”
Dr. Bravo added, “What we need is to cultivate the resiliency of the immunization program from vaccine hesitancy to vaccine resilience. Vaccine resilience is about [being] able to address [issues]. You look at your immunization program and plan what to do next if this kind of issue happens. We have preparedness plan for disasters, that’s what we need to do for vaccines.”
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