Millions of children across the Philippines are set to receive free vaccines after two polio cases were reported in the provinces of Laguna and Lanao del Sur — the first cases in almost 20 years.
The Philippines Department of Health confirmed polio’s presence after a 3-year-old girl and a 5-year-old boy tested positive last month. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative, World Health Organization (WHO), and International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) have now united efforts to tackle the infectious disease.
Head of IFRC in the Philippines, Chris Staines, said the IFRC will work to help orchestrate a series of synchronized oral polio vaccination rounds so that all children under 5 years old can be immunized.
"We are very concerned that the resurgence of polio in the Philippines puts 11 million Filipino children under 5 at high risk of disability and even death. We appeal to all parents to protect their children against the virus during this massive, synchronized nationwide campaign,” he said in a press release. “The Philippines has eradicated polio before, and together we can do it again.”
Parents lined up from sunrise holding sleeping infants in Manila as the Philippines launched a campaign on Monday, October 14, to vaccinate millions of children against polio. Two cases were detected in September, the first polio infections in the Philippines since 2001. (AFP) pic.twitter.com/Edci4uaU4n— The Voice of America (@VOANews) October 15, 2019
The two children were confirmed to have vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2 — a rare, mutated form of the weaker live polio virus used in vaccinations.
Heidi Larson, a vaccine researcher at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said vaccine-derived poliovirus can spread in areas with inadequate sanitation and poor vaccination coverage via the consumption of feces-infested water.
“It doesn't mean that when you take the vaccine, you immediately get it. But it's a live virus, so it doesn't make you sick, but it goes right through you into the environment. And if there's no protection in the environment, that live virus can travel to somebody else,” Larson told media organization PRI. “And the cases that came up in the Philippines actually came from that process because they didn't have that protective cover that the vaccine allows when everybody gets it.”
Oral polio vaccination coverage in the Philippines currently sits at 66%, according to the WHO.
But for children under the age of 6, that figure slumps to 40%.
The virus — already detected in sewage systems and waterways in the nation's capital, Manila, and southern city, Davao — is at high risk of quickly spreading due to the low levels of vaccination coverage.
The presence of polio is the Philippines’ third health crisis for 2019.
In February, a measles outbreak claimed hundreds of lives. Cases of dengue, a deadly mosquito-borne virus, then jumped significantly between January and September, infecting upwards of 320,000 people — up 115% from 2018.