Millions of children younger than 5 are at risk of contracting measles in the Philippines where the disease already has killed 286 people, health workers warned Thursday.
Richard Gordon, chairman of the Philippine Red Cross, said the number of fatalities is 42 percent higher this year than for all of 2018, when 202 deaths were recorded across the archipelago.
“We are in the grip of a measles outbreak that, tragically, is hitting the very young hardest,” Gordon said, adding 110 babies younger than 9 months have died since January.
“The Red Cross has been crucial in restoring people’s confidence in vaccines, which makes it easier now to convince parents to get their children vaccinated. But we are aiming for a 100 percent immunization rate,” he said.
Three regions around Manila accounted for most of the cases recorded from Jan. 1 to March 2, the government’s health department said.
With the estimated number of children younger than 5 who have not been vaccinated against the disease estimated at 3.7 million, Gordon said many remain vulnerable. Health experts estimate that every person sick with the measles could infect up to 18 others.
Previously, health officials blamed the rise in measles cases to a vaccination scare in late 2017. At the time, French pharmaceutical firm Sanofi Pasteur admitted that its dengue vaccine, Dengvaxia, could cause side effects which could lead to severe dengue to those injected with it even if they had no prior infections.
The government suspended using Dengvaxia, but paranoia over vaccines has persisted. Health workers said many families, particularly in slums around Manila, did not participate in the government-sponsored vaccination programs for their children, leading to the measles explosion.
Chris Staines, head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in the Philippines, expressed concerned for the country.
“With experts warning that the outbreak could last for months, potentially not stabilizing until May, many more lives are at risk. This is a preventable tragedy,” Staines said. “We have no time to lose and no time to be complacent. We need to support Philippines Red Cross staff and volunteers today in their life-saving actions.”
He said 13,500 children have received vaccinations, but stressed the number should be increased.
UNICEF and the World Health Organization last week reported a total of 18,553 measles cases in the Philippines that resulted in the 286 deaths. The organizations said 60 percent of infected patients were not vaccinated.
Jeoffrey Maitem in Cotabato City, Philippines, contributed to this report.