High vaccine hesitancy continues to be a major stumbling block in the long road to herd immunity that the Philippines is aspiring to achieve by the end of this year. In the event that the government’s most optimistic scenarios on vaccine delivery and distribution materialize, the big question remains: Will there be sufficient arms waiting to be jabbed in all the vaccination centers nationwide?
Three resource persons invited to the virtual town hall that marked the launching of the Philippine Rotary Vaccination Campaign (PRVC) shed light on concerns that underpin the prevailing lukewarm sentiment toward vaccination.
Dr. Esperanza Cabral, who served as health secretary and social welfare and development secretary in the Macapagal-Arroyo administration, emphasized the importance of building trust as the foundation for vaccine acceptance. She cited three imperatives: Fighting disinformation, correcting deficiencies in the public health system, and fostering hope and optimism.
A cardiologist and clinical pharmacologist by specialization, she said vaccines are important as these prevent death and serious illness, symptomatic disease and transmission, as in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. She said that vaccines, which originated in 1796, represent the earliest of the top 10 medical advances in human history that include: Anesthesia, germ theory, medical imaging, penicillin, organ transplants, anti-viral drugs, stem cell therapy, immunotherapy and artificial intelligence.
Dr. Cabral also cited the following empirical findings on the efficacy of authorized COVID vaccines: 98.9 percent effective at preventing deaths and hospitalizations; 95.8 percent decline in COVID-19 infections among people who received both shots of the vaccine; and 98 percent effective in preventing infections manifested by fever or breathing problems.
“With our poor performance at testing, tracing, isolating and treating, it looks like our only way out of this pandemic is to vaccinate ourselves into herd immunity,” she said.
She expressed concern about the findings of recent surveys showing a very low level of vaccine acceptance in the country. She referred to the latest Pulse Asia (February 2021) survey that showed only 16 percent of respondents were willing to be vaccinated. Dr. Cabral pointed out the need for ramping up communication and community engagement initiatives such as through town halls and assemblies that will propagate focused and theme-aligned messages.
She also underlined the need for advocacy champions and influencers such as health care workers, local chief executives and LGU responders, media practitioners, non-health responders and community organizers, faith based organizations, and academe leaders.
Taking a leaf from Manila Mayor Francisco ‘Isko Moreno’ Domagoso’s slogan, Creating the Vaccine Nation, Dr. Gerardo Legaspi was the second resource person. As director of the Philippine General Hospital, he spearheaded the conversion of six sections and the retrofitting of two wards, including an initial 130 beds with ICU units, within a record time of one week after the declaration of enhanced community quarantine in March last year. The PGH is now a model haven where the treatment of COVID-19 patients is effective and organized, and where, most importantly, health care front liners can work safely.
A town hall was convened two days before the scheduled start of the vaccination, drawing more than 1,200 participants, to ensure that all members of the PGH community were sufficiently informed. He was the first health worker to be vaccinated, as the Philippines launched its vaccine drive last March 1.
From an initial 32 percent acceptance, the PGH community — including the senior and super-senior doctors who are octogenarians and nonagenarians (in their ’80s and ’90s) came out in full force to be vaccinated. Dr. Legaspi expressed disagreement with those who emphasize the declared efficacy of vaccines that have been given emergency use authorization (EUA) based on clinical trials. He said that these trials were conducted during the early phases of the pandemic; new variants have since emerged, some more virulent than others. Hence, he said, it is better to suspend judgment while actual, real-time experience is recorded, as this would be a more reliable measure of vaccine effectiveness.
He ended his presentation with a compelling statement on pandemic management, Filipino style: In this ragtag jeepney that we are riding in while traversing the pandemic landscape, the vaccine is our seatbelt. It will not prevent accidents, but it will lessen the probability of us dying.
Dr. Marilen Paruñgao Balolong, a professor of Microbiology and a doctor of Public Health at the UP in Manila, was the third resource person. She underlined the importance of disseminating accurate scientific information.
Dr. Balolong actively made the rounds of the webinar circuit, in order to clarify many misconceptions about vaccines. She recalled that when the vaccine rollout started, people, including health workers, were hesitant to get vaccinated. “As a science communicator, I want to help them find answers for their questions and doubts. They need information and understanding. It is not a good time to be judgmental.”