World Immunization Week 2023 celebrations kick off in Pangasinan and Cebu
Three years of the COVID-19 pandemic strained health systems worldwide and disrupted the delivery of vital health services. This includes routine immunization for children and the elderly, an essential component of primary health services.
“Immunization has saved millions of lives in the last 50 years by preventing the spread of fatal diseases and vaccine-preventable diseases,” says consultant Dr. Namrata Bhatta, sharing an official statement from the World Health Organization (WHO). “But the last three decades of progress in immunization was lost in just three years of the COVID-19 pandemic, with significant consequences in threatening the health of children and communities.”
In the Philippines alone, shares the WHO, nearly 1.6 million children under two years old have failed to receive their routine immunizations in the last three years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These children could now be at higher risk of contracting vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles, polio, and diphtheria. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles, polio, and diphtheria are rising worldwide.
“With immunization backsliding due to COVID-19 pandemic disruptions, we must catch up, restore, and strengthen immunization services to reach the millions of people missing out on the life-saving benefits of vaccines, and to stop outbreaks and cancers from accelerating,” says Dr. Sophia Mancao, Assistant Regional Director for DOH-Region VII.
As a key component of primary health care, routine immunization is one of the best investments to support a healthier and safer nation. Vaccines can help prevent more than 20 life-threatening diseases, including cervical cancer and pneumonia, helping people of all ages live longer and healthier lives.
The big catch-up on immunization
MSD in the Philippines, together with the Department of Health (DOH) and the Department of Education (DepEd), kicked off celebrations for World Immunization Week 2023 at the Urdaneta City Cultural Complex, Pangasinan, last April 20, 2023, and at Robinsons Galleria Atrium Cebu, Cebu City, last April 28, 2023.
Every year, every last week of April, the global community comes together to celebrate World Immunization Week in recognition of the lifesaving power of vaccines. This year’s theme, “The Big Catch-Up: Stronger Together for a Healthy Philippines”, emphasized the urgency of getting back on track with routine immunizations and the importance of a lifetime approach to vaccination to build a stronger and healthier nation.
“World Immunization Week aims to highlight the collective action needed to protect people from vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles, rubella, polio, influenza, pneumonia, and cervical cancer, among others,” says Dr. Paula Paz M. Sydiongco, Director IV at the DOH-Ilocos Center for Health Development.
“School-aged children and senior citizens of Urdaneta City, indeed, you are very fortunate to be given priority vaccination as we kick off World Immunization Week 2023,” says Senator Imee Marcos. “Before, we took our health for granted. But, after what we witnessed during the COVID-19 pandemic, we realized how important it is to prioritize our health. This is also why vaccines are very important—there is a solution, and the solution is vaccination.”
“This year is our global opportunity to catch up on lost progress in essential immunization,” adds Dr. Sydiongco. “The WHO, DOH, and local government units are working with partners to accelerate progress and get back on track to ensure more people, particularly children and the elderly, are protected from vaccine-preventable diseases.”
A lifetime approach to immunization
Vaccines are safe and effective, and provide protection across all ages, adds Dr. Sydiongco. This is why the DOH has various immunization programs across different age groups, and has made vaccines free and available in local health centers and other primary care providers nationwide. “As part of our awareness campaigns, we will educate communities about vaccines and where to get them,” says Dr. Daisy Villa, Head of the Cebu City Health Department.
“Vaccination is expanding from its traditional focus on childhood immunization to a lifetime approach to immunization,” says Dr. Marvin C. Callanta, a fellow and regional representative of the Philippine Pediatric Society (PPS).
Due to previous emphasis on childhood immunization, adolescents miss out on their much-needed boosters and experience lowered protection from childhood vaccines. Most parents are also unaware that adolescents need vaccines too, which can lead to fewer primary care visits among teenagers. According to the DOH’s immunization schedule, adolescents can receive immunization against influenza, measles, varicella, encephalitis, and hepatitis.
It is particularly prescient to have girls aged 9 to 14 vaccinated against human papillomaviruses (HPV), a common virus primarily transmitted through sexual contact. This age group benefits the most from immunization as they are not yet exposed to HPV, which usually results from sexual activity. Securing immunization at this age helps protect them against HPV infection, cervical cancer, and other HPV-related diseases.
Routine immunization is valuable for adults and the elderly, too, says Dr. Justin Clyde Gubatan, Head of Family Health at the DOH-Ilocos Center for Health Development. In particular, the elderly are at greater risk of getting pneumonia due to old age, weakening immune systems, higher risk of viral or bacterial infections, and other co-morbidities such as high blood pressure, diabetes, liver failure, and other chronic illnesses.
“Many older adults have this misconception that pneumonia is just a cough that will go away, not knowing that it is a lung infection caused by virus, fungi, and bacteria,” adds Dr. Gubatan. Pneumonia is a vaccine-preventable disease, and pneumococcal vaccines have existed since the 1980s. However, despite the safety and widespread availability of vaccines, pneumococcal vaccination coverage in the Philippines is still at around 20% of the total senior population.
To help boost immunization among the elderly, the DOH has mandated that all senior citizens aged 60 years old and above receive the following vaccines for free: one dose of pneumococcal vaccine throughout their lifetime, and one dose of the flu vaccine every year. To ensure safety, all eligible senior citizens must be assessed and interviewed before their immunization to determine any contraindications.
Stronger together for a healthy Philippines
Aside from educational talks, the events also held commitment exercises and community vaccination ceremonies to emphasize the value of lifetime immunization even further.
Through the “Kalasag ng Kalusugan” commitment exercise, representatives from different stakeholder groups pledged their continued support to public health through immunization. “Kalasag ng Kalusugan,” which translates to “health shield,” represents the strong collaboration among the local and national governments, healthcare communities, and civil society organizations to promote immunization across different life stages.
“It highlights the commitment of different agencies and stakeholders to educate and ensure the health of our communities through the implementation of the National Immunization Program (NIP), which aims to protect people from vaccine-preventable diseases across different life stages,” says Atty. Jocelyn G. Pesquera, Cebu City Councilor.
Ceremonial vaccinations closed off the event, where select girls aged 9 to 14 were vaccinated against HPV, while another group of select senior citizens aged 60 and above were vaccinated against pneumonia.
Learn more about routine immunization for different life stages. Ask your school nurses and local health workers about the DOH’s various immunization programs for different age groups. Together, we can amplify the value of immunization as a basic right of every Filipino, and how this vital healthcare intervention can propel us toward a healthier and brighter tomorrow.