Polio Left the Philippines 19 Years Ago. Now It's Back
While much of the world has successfully eradicated polio, the Philippines has resurrected it. This year, the government slashed the country’s health budget by P14 billion. It initially planned to cut it by P36 billion. The damning effects of the budget cut were almost immediate: In the same year, the country experienced a resurgence in measles outbreak and an uncontrollable rise in cases of dengue, triggering a national health crisis. Now, we have polio.
What is Polio? Why was it the world’s most feared disease?
Decades ago, polio was one of the most feared diseases in the world. Aside from being a highly contagious viral disease, it also has a frightening portfolio of symptoms: paralysis, lung failure, fever, fatigue, headache, vomiting, pain in the limbs, and stiffness in the neck. Completing its profile of deadliness, the disease mostly affects children under five years of age, who are highly susceptible to the disease.
One in every 200 infections leads to permanent paralysis. Around 10 percent of paralyzed victims die when their breathing muscles fail. Apolinario Mabini contracted polio when he was in his 30s, eventually paralyzing him from the waist down.
The world eliminated polio in the 2000s.
Thirty years ago in 1988, world leaders decided to cooperate and end polio for good. It was a time when polio paralyzed 350,000 people every year, mostly children. Massive immunization efforts in every country, led by the World Health Organization on the one hand and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on the other, led to significant victories against the disease. In 1994, the Americas were declared polio-free. The West Pacific followed in year 2000. In 2002, Europe was declared polio-free. Finally, in 2011, the World Health Organization declared Southeast Asia, including the Philippines, free of polio.
The Philippines was one of the first countries in Asia to be rid of polio, thanks to its aggressive immunization efforts in the ‘90s. The World Health Organization officially declared the country polio-free in 2000.
Why did polio reemerge in the Philippines?
The best way to prevent polio is through vaccination. The last reported case of polio in the Philippines was in 1993. The Philippines has been polio-free for many years until now. According to the Department of Health (DOH), the Philippines’ polio immunization coverage is only 66 to 68 percent, way below the international standard of 95 percent.
In October last year, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine released a study, saying that Filipinos’ trust in vaccination programs significantly dropped because of the highly politicized issue of Dengvaxia. The anti-dengue vaccine is the only effective vaccine against dengue, and is used in Brazil, Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand.
According to the study, Filipinos had a 93 percent trust in vaccines in 2015—before the Dengvaxia issue. In 2018, after the Dengvaxia issue, Filipinos’ trust in vaccines dropped to 32 percent, not only in Dengvaxia, but in all forms of vaccines, including those for polio and measles.
Now, the health department is urging families to practice good hygiene as a shield against the diseases. “Practice good personal hygiene, wash hands regularly, use toilets, drink safe water, and cook food thoroughly,” said health secretary Francisco Duque, III.
Vaccination is the best solution to prevent the spread of deadly diseases like polio.
Developing vaccines costs governments and pharmaceutical companies billions of dollars, which is why they prioritize developing vaccines for the deadliest diseases with widespread incidence, such as measles, polio, and dengue.
The DOH is trying to convince people to put their trust in vaccines once again. “We strongly urge parents, health workers and local governments to fully participate in the synchronized polio vaccination. It is the only way to stop the polio outbreak and to protect your child against this paralyzing disease,” said Duque.
The World Health Organization, UNICEF, and DOH are now working together for an anti-polio response.