Screengrab from ABS-CBN News' Youtube account.
LAST YEAR, a news brief in the Philippine Daily Inquirer published on October 25 reported a 926% increase in confirmed measles cases since January 2018, as recorded by the Department of Health (DOH). Unfortunately, that staggering rise in cases did not get a follow-up from the press and thus received little public attention.
Barely four months later, the DOH announced measles outbreaks in five regions, including Metro Manila. The latest data provided online by the DOHs Epidemiology Bureau list 4,302 measles cases and 70 deaths from January 1 to February 9 this year. Health officials said one of the reasons for the outbreak was vaccine hesitancy, which the DOH explained as a delay in acceptance or refusal of vaccines despite availability of vaccination services. In laymans language, many parents had become afraid of vaccines which had long been seen as effective in combating childhood diseases.
The coverage of the Dengvaxia controversy in 2017 raised serious concerns about the governments immunization program, as it highlighted the politics involved, focusing on finding someone to blame in the use of the controversial vaccine. In reporting the current measles epidemic, the media did not dwell so much on who should be blamed for the outbreak, focusing instead on the current measures being observed to counter it. But the press could have led on this just given the statistics in 2018. If the DOH was not going to alert the public about the dire consequences of non-vaccination, the media could have gone to other experts in the private sector for sources on the subject. Instead, media missed the opportunity as reporters assigned to the health beat awaited official action on the disease outbreak.
CMFR monitored the three broadsheets (Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star and Manila Bulletin), four primetime newscasts (ABS-CBN 2s TV Patrol, GMA-7s 24 Oras, TV5s Aksyon and CNN Philippines News Night) and selected online news sites from February 6 to February 12.
The reports were straightforward, documenting the situation in public hospitals such as San Lazaro Hospital, where most cases in Metro Manila are brought. They included basic information on measles, such as its symptoms and complications and the measles immunization process. Some reports reminded the public that health centers provide free measles vaccinations for children five years old and below, as mandated by the law on mandatory basic immunization.
Journalists on the beat interviewed parents, some of whom admitted that they did not have their children vaccinated because of the Dengvaxia scare. Others said they were not able to take their children to health centers or hospitals due to time and resource constraints. Some reports also followed developments such as the establishment of measles fast lanes in hospitals and of vaccine centers in fast food restaurants and churches.
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Media coverage was certainly helpful for parents whose children have not yet been vaccinated. But the news on the outbreak also reminded the public about health issues which coverage showed: hospital overcrowding. A survey of government hospitals could go a long way to redirect budget allocations to medical services nationwide.
A TV Patrol report cited some barangay health workers (BHWs) saying they feel disheartened (masakit sa amin) when parents refuse to listen to their explanation that the measles vaccine has long been proven safe. The lack of attention given to door-to-door immunization drives conducted by BHWs should alert authorities about the need to recharge their grassroots health campaign in general.
Secretary Duque told the media that the outbreak might last for three more months, a time period that coincides with the election campaign. As of press time, coverage on the issue has significantly dwindled, with recent developments picked up mostly by online news.
Media may have learned a lesson from the experience of the Dengvaxia controversy, when it missed highlighting the safe vaccines already in the national health programs. More knowledgeable editors and reporters would have anticipated the public backlash on all vaccines as an effect of the Dengvaxia scare and provided helpful news packages on the issue.
Politics tends to draw media attention away from important issues that affect the population, such as public health. Broadcast media which are followed more by the mass audience can do so much more in educating parents about the health of their children and their families.
Editors and journalists need to become more knowledgeable about the subject so they can invest to make health news interesting, as it is so highly relevant to the public even without politics and crises.