MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines on Thursday announced an outbreak of polio, 19 years after the World Health Organization declared the Southeast Asian country free of the infectious disease.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque said government scientists have confirmed the “re-emergence of polio” after one case in the southern province of Lanao del Sur and another suspected case of the disease. He blamed “poor immunization coverage,” a lack of sanitation and proper hygiene and poor surveillance by health workers as among the reasons the disease returned.
Polio is an infectious disease that can spread rapidly and mainly affects young children. It can cause muscle weakness, paralysis and, on rare occasions, it can be fatal. There is no cure for polio, but it can be prevented with multiple doses of polio vaccines.
Despite aggressive eradication efforts around the world, the disease has hung on in a handful of countries and even gained a stronger foothold in some, like Pakistan and Afghanistan. There are currently cases this year in several African countries, such as the Central African Republic and Somalia.
Duque said on Thursday that the case in Lanao del Sur involved a 3-year-old girl. Apart from that confirmed case, a case of “acute flaccid paralysis” thought to also be polio was awaiting confirmation, he said.
He also announced that the government would be embarking on a new polio vaccination campaign with the help of the WHO.
“We strongly urge parents, health workers and local governments to fully participate in the synchronized polio vaccination,” Duque said, adding that vaccination was the only way “to stop the polio outbreak and to protect your child against this paralyzing disease.”
“Aside from immunization,” he said, “we remind the public to practice good personal hygiene, wash their hands regularly, use toilets, drink safe water, and cook food thoroughly.”
Government scientists have also detected the polio virus in samples taken from sewage in Manila and waterways in the southern city of Davao, Duque said. Those results, he said, were confirmed by the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine in Manila, the Japanese National Institute for Infectious Diseases and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States.
“A single confirmed polio case of vaccine-derived polio virus type 2 or two positive environmental samples that are genetically linked isolated in two different locations is considered an epidemic in a polio-free country,” Duque said.
The WHO and UNICEF will be working with the health department on a “rapid response” to curb the outbreak. It will include a series of oral polio vaccinations to protect every child under the age of 5 years in areas at risk, beginning next month.
Dr. Rabindra Abeyasinghe, the WHO’s representative in the country, urged all parents to have their children vaccinated to protect against the disease, calling the outbreak “deeply disconcerting.”
She emphasized the urgent need of children being immunized by polio vaccines regardless of their immunization status.
The Philippines has been struggling to regain the public’s trust in immunization since 2017, when it stopped using a dengue vaccine manufactured by the French firm Sanofi after it was found to pose health risks to people who had not previously had the disease.
The Philippines was the first country in Asia to approve the commercial sale of the vaccine, Dengvaxia, two years earlier. The drug was administered to about 1 million schoolchildren through a massive immunization program.
Last month, the country declared a dengue epidemic, with hundreds of patients dying from the mosquito-borne disease. President Rodrigo Duterte has said he would re-approve the sale of Dengvaxia if the health department authorized it. It has not so far.