A whole-of-nation immunization campaign

Published July 4, 2021, 12:10 AM

by Senator Sonny Angara


Senator Sonny Angara

Recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) declared that the polio outbreak in the Philippines has ended after the country recorded zero cases for 16 months since a surveillance and an immunization campaign was launched.

This recent accomplishment is actually the second time the country was affirmed by the WHO to have beaten the sickness.  The first was in 2000, some six years after the Department of Health (DOH), led by the late former health secretary and senator Juan Flavier, launched a massive immunization campaign called Oplan Alis Disease.   According to Dr. Mike Vergara, who was among the chief architects of the campaign, some 24 million Filipinos were vaccinated under the program within just two days covering 98 percent of the target population for the polio vaccine during the program’s first year.

The more recent polio-free declaration in June 2021 was also driven by a similarly massive immunization campaign where 30 million doses of the polio vaccine were distributed nationwide. In both vaccination campaigns, what stood out was how government acted with the full support of the private sector and civic organizations.

Of course, this isn’t to say that these immunization campaigns were not without their share of issues. For instance, in a December 2020 commentary, Drs. Sophia Graciela Reyes, Edward Christopher Dee, and Beverly Lorraine Ho, argued that vaccine coverage occasionally dropped throughout the decades, in part because certain groups spread false claims about the doses being administered.

Fast forward to today, according to a May 2021 Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey, only three out of 10 Filipinos were reportedly willing to get vaccinated against COVID-19 primarily due to a fear of possible side effects. Worse, the remaining individuals who want to be vaccinated prefer one brand of vaccine over another, which is definitely a hindrance given the limited supply of such vaccines from across the world.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) lists low vaccine confidence as one of the world’s most pressing public health concerns. This is particularly true today, amid the pandemic. Therefore, to ensure a quicker return to normalcy, it is crucial that vaccine trust is promoted among the public if only to increase uptake.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, underscored the responsibility of institutions in advocating that vaccination is still one of the best protections from serious infectious diseases (such as COVID-19) and that uncertainties surrounding the vaccines must be responded with “patience, compassion, and with a clear explanation of the science” to support its safety and benefits.

In an article, Professor Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College observed, however, that not all trust medicine and science as can be observed in the US. Hence, the cooperation of religious organizations, schools, businesses, and civic groups is critical in laying down accurate information on vaccines and their benefits. Nyhan reported that such approach proved successful in reducing unsafe practices during the Ebola crisis in Africa where communities apparently heeded the advice of local leaders and community health workers more than their public health officials.

The same recommendation applies in the local setting as suggested in the study of Drs. Reyes, Dee, and Ho earlier cited—that everyone in the community must be engaged to shore up trust on vaccines. This is important to fostering “vaccine and science literacy,” which is part and parcel of the public health infrastructure needed to ensure that the targeted population can make informed decisions about immunization.

During the sponsorship of Republic Act No. 11525 or the COVID-19 Vaccination Program Act of 2021 in the Senate, I emphasized how our recovery would be fueled by a whole-of-nation approach, where all sectors of society, all levels of government, all our policies, regulations, and systems must be in sync so we can fully recover from the pandemic. As a result, the law, which was authored by 20 Senators, embodies the multisectoral approach envisioned to warrant a successful roll-out of the National COVID-19 Vaccination Program.

Equipped with the lessons from the past, enabling legal frameworks, and a gradually stabilizing vaccine supply, we can certainly accomplish the daunting task of achieving herd immunity. If we, Filipinos, have worked together to overcome disease outbreaks twice before, then there’s no stopping us from beating COVID-19. (30)

Sen. Sonny Angara has been in public service for 17 years.  He has authored and sponsored more than 200 laws. He is currently serving his second term in the Senate.

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