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Philippines launches world's first mass vaccination for dengue fever

Flickr: Sanofi Pasteur

On Monday, the Philippines launched the first ever public immunisation program for dengue fever. The Philippine Health Department aims to administer the vaccine to over 1 million schoolchildren to protect against the life-threatening disease.

About 250 fourth graders at Parang Elementary School in Manila were the first to receive the free vaccine. The school-based vaccination program will target nine-year olds in regions with the highest number of dengue cases.

Dengue is a mosquito-born viral infection that causes a flu-like illness and can potentially develop into a fatal version known as severe dengue. While adults can generally recover from dengue in a few weeks, children are are at greater risk of developing severe dengue.  

Dengue is the world’s fastest growing mosquito-borne illness.The virus is found mostly in urban areas of tropical and subtropical climates worldwide and has been slowly expanding as climate change creates more favorable conditions for mosquitoes to inhabit.

According to the World Health Organization, over 400 million people are infected with dengue each year, which leads to significant economic damage to families that live in poverty. Globally, around 25,000 people, mostly children, die from severe dengue every year. The Philippines has the highest incidence of dengue in the WHO’s Western Pacific region, reporting more than 200,000 cases last year.

A vaccine for dengue called Dengvaxia was developed by French pharmaceutical company Sanofi Pasteur and approved for use in a few countries last year. The vaccine took over 20 years to develop and the Philippines will be the first to make Dengvaxia commercially available. Mexico, Brazil, and El Salvador also licensed the vaccine but the Philippines is the first country to implement a free, national dengue vaccination program.

The vaccine is still undergoing regulatory reviews by the WHO but a study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that the vaccine reduced the risk of contracting dengue by 65 percent and prevented severe dengue cases by 93 percent in children from 9 to 16 years old. The vaccine’s effectiveness was lower for children under the age of 9.

The Philippine Health Department expects to reduce dengue cases by at least 25% by administering vaccines in 6,000 public schools deemed at-risk for dengue fever. 

The free vaccine program ensures that both rich and poor children will be able to benefit from the vaccine. Philippine Health Secretary Janette Garin called the program a historic milestone for public health. After a successful launch of the school vaccination program, the dengue vaccine will soon be available in all hospitals in the Philippines. 

With the introduction of a new, affordable vaccine, the Philippines is leading the world in the effort to eradicate the endemic disease and could be well on it's way to being dengue free in the near future.