Philippines declares ‘national dengue epidemic’ as death toll, number of cases rise

From January to July 20, the Philippines' Department of Health has recorded a total of 146,062 cases of dengue nationwide, 98 per cent higher than in the same period in 2018.
From January to July 20, the Philippines' Department of Health has recorded a total of 146,062 cases of dengue nationwide, 98 per cent higher than in the same period in 2018.PHOTO: AFP

MANILA – The Philippines on Tuesday (Aug 6) declared a “national dengue epidemic”, as the death toll from the deadly mosquito-borne disease topped 600, with cases doubling from last year.

Health Secretary Francisco Duque announced in a news conference that 622 people had so far died of dengue.

“This is high,” he said.

He said more than  146,000 cases were documented from January to July this year, up by 98 per cent from a year earlier.

This runs up to some 5,000 cases per week, he said. By year’s end, the country could see at least 260,000 dengue cases.

“This is really staggering. This is going to be a record number. This is the compelling reason why we are declaring a state of national dengue epidemic,” said Dr Duque.

Outbreaks had been seen in seven of the country’s 17 regions.

The government’s main response so far has been to fumigate high-risk, densely populated districts. 

It is also on a massive information drive about dengue, a mosquito-borne disease that afflicts hundreds of millions of people around the world, and how to avoid getting it.

“We don’t have a cure. We don’t have a vaccine. These are the only things we can do right now,” said Dr Duque.

The government is considering making the anti-dengue vaccine Dengvaxia available again.

Dr Duque said on Tuesday that  reintroducing the vaccine might not be enough to stem the outbreaks.

“It’s not recommended as an outbreak response. It’s not cost-effective, and it does not squarely address the most vulnerable group, which is the five  to nine-year-olds,” he said.

In 2016, the health department, under then President Benigno Aquino, rolled out a 3.5 billion-peso (S$91 million) programme to inoculate a million school-age children with Dengvaxia to protect them against dengue.

Public health advocates opposing the programme warned at the time that the vaccine could lead to deadlier strains of the disease. 

In late 2017, French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi, which licensed Dengvaxia, disclosed that the vaccine, in rare cases, could indeed backfire: If children who never had dengue are vaccinated and later become infected, the vaccine may provoke a much more severe form of the illness.

That triggered investigations in Congress. The anti-dengue programme was scrapped, and Sanofi was forced to refund 1.16 billion pesos worth of unused vaccines.

The justice department filed criminal charges against more than  30 health officials for the deaths of about 100 children. A  probe by the Public Attorney’s Office had linked the deaths to Dengvaxia.

Health advocates said the risks linked to Dengvaxia had been exaggerated by politics.

The result had been public aversion to vaccines. A study last year by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said public confidence in vaccines in the Philippines plunged to 32 per cent from 93 per cent in 2015 because of the government’s “highly politicised” response to the Dengvaxia scare.

The health department reported that vaccine coverage rate plunged to 40 per cent last year  from 70 per cent in 2017.

The country battled a surge in measles early this year, with dozens dying. 

The health department believes these outbreaks are due to parents opting not to have their children inoculated for measles and other highly contagious diseases.