As coronavirus pandemic drags on, Philippines resumes polio immunization

As the Philippines struggles with the coronavirus, the Department of Health (DOH) faces another challenge as it resumed its polio vaccination campaign earlier put on hold due to the pandemic. 

The DOH announced on Monday, July 20, it is relaunching the Sabayang Patak Kontra Polio campaign with the next phase aimed at vaccinating children in Mindanao, Central Luzon, Laguna, Cavite, and Rizal in July and August. 

The vaccination campaign is crucial for the DOH, which declared a polio epidemic in the country in September 2019, after a case surfaced in Mindanao following the Philippines' 19-year polio-free status. 

Since then, the DOH said 15 more children from below one year old to 9 years old have been confirmed to have the disease, with cases identified in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, Soccsksargen, Central Luzon, and Calabarzon.

Why it matters

The Philippines' health system cannot afford another outbreak during the coronavirus pandemic, said Health Secretary Francisco Duque III.

"Polio is a vaccine-preventable disease and we cannot let our gains over the years go to waste by deprioritizing our polio response. It is imperative for parents and caregivers to have their children vaccinated, while strictly adhering to infection prevention and control protocols, as we cannot afford to overwhelm our health system with another outbreak," Duque said in a statement. 

The challenge is not lost upon health officials who, along with the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef), have been conducting online orientations and planning with field teams to prepare for the immunization campaign. 

Obstacles include health workers having to dedicate more time to responding to the coronavirus, as well as difficulties in the conduct of the program like practicing physical distancing when children and parents gather for immunization.

The WHO recently urged countries to carefully resume vaccine campaigns to prevent the spread of vaccine-preventable diseases during the pandemic. (READ: EXPLAINER: What is polio?)

Both the WHO and Unicef earlier warned of the "alarming decline" in the number of children receiving vaccines worldwide due to disruptions in the delivery and uptake of immunization services caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.  

"We have to remember that the polio outbreak is not over, so it is critical that we continue this lifesaving work of immunizing our children against this debilitating disease, while responding to COVID-19," WHO Philippines representative Rabindra Abeyasinghe said. 

For the Philippines, the polio vaccination campaign may also test the country's immunization coverage rates which had just recovered before the pandemic hit. The DOH said latest immunization rounds during the 1st quarter of 2020 reached some 4.5 million children in Mindanao and Metro Manila or more than 95% of children targeted for vaccination. 

This was in stark contrast to the DOH's measles immunization campaign, which struggled to reach targets due to vaccine hesitancy prompted by the the Dengvaxia dengue vaccine scare.

What to expect

The next phase of the polio vaccine campaign will cover the whole of Mindanao from July 20 to August 2 for children under 5 years old. The DOH said children under 10 years old in selected areas in Mindanao will also receive polio drops. 

Meanwhile, the campaign will be done in a phased approach for children in Central Luzon beginning July 20, and in Laguna, Cavite, and Rizal in August. – Rappler.com

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs and is the lead reporter on the coronavirus pandemic. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter via @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.

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