First case of polio in 19 years reported in the Philippines

Polio has resurfaced in the Philippines, 19 years after the country was declared free of the paralysing disease. Officials say the development is the result of public aversion to vaccines.

Health officials yesterday reported the country's first polio case since 2000 - a three-year-old girl in Lanao del Sur province, 1,000km south of the capital Manila. They are also trying to confirm a case of acute flaccid paralysis - a neurological disease that causes sudden weakness or paralysis in any part of the body - which could have been due to polio.

The polio virus was also discovered in sewage samples taken in Manila and Davao City, home turf of President Rodrigo Duterte.

Poliomyelitis, or polio, attacks the nervous system and can cause irreversible paralysis within hours of infection. Children under five years old are the most vulnerable.

Many households in the Philippines, especially in poor districts, shunned polio vaccines after a programme to inoculate a million school-age children with the world's first dengue vaccine in 2016 failed when the pharmaceutical firm behind it disclosed that the vaccine could provoke a much more severe form of dengue.

Public confidence in vaccines plunged to 32 per cent last year in the Philippines, from 93 per cent in 2015, according to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

The health department reported that vaccine coverage slid to 40 per cent last year from 70 per cent a year earlier. Polio vaccine coverage, in particular, fell to 66 per cent from 95 per cent.

An infant in Manila being given the oral polio vaccine by a health worker. Public aversion to
vaccines in the Philippines has caused massive outbreaks of dengue and measles. PHOTO: AGENCE


Public aversion to vaccines has also caused massive outbreaks of dengue and measles.

Last month, the government declared a "national dengue epidemic" as more than 1,000 people - nearly half of them children who were five to nine years old - died of the mosquito-borne disease.

Meanwhile, more than 45,000 cases of measles were recorded over a year from July last year.

Unicef Philippines representative Oyun Dendevnorov said the resurgence of polio in the country is "deeply disconcerting".

In a news conference yesterday, Health Secretary Francisco Duque said: "We repeat our call to parents and caregivers: Let us prioritise the complete vaccination of our children, so they remain safe from vaccine-preventable diseases like polio."

Dr Duque said the health department would roll out "synchronised polio vaccinations" for children under five in high-risk areas next month.

"The polio vaccine coverage should be at 95 per cent to ensure that (the disease) will not create problems for our children... Complete vaccination is the best way to prevent it," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 20, 2019, with the headline 'First case of polio in 19 years reported in the Philippines'. Subscribe