Philippine National Red Cross and Health Department volunteers conduct house-to-house measles vaccination to children in Manila, Philippines following an outbreak of measles.
Photo: Bullit Marquez (AP)

Thousands of people have been infected in a measles outbreak that has been linked to the deaths of 136 people, according to the Philippine health secretary on Monday. The Associated Press reported that most of those who died were young children, with roughly half between the ages of 1 and 4.

Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said some 8,400 cases of measles have been reported. The Philippine government is now hoping that an immunization drive and government assurances will restore public trust following the fallout from a 2017 controversy involving the Dengvaxia vaccine for dengue. The outbreak has prompted President Rodrigo Duterte to issue public statements about the potential for the virus to turn deadly, particularly in children.

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“Do not be lulled and complacent about it, because infants really need that,” Duterte said during a speech in January, according to the Washington Post. The paper noted the measles had been close to being eliminated in the Philippines in 2010.

The Philippine government suspended its program for the Dengvaxia vaccine from French pharmaceutical maker Sanofi Pasteur after the company announced that the drug could result in a more severe form of the disease in those who hadn’t previously contracted it, the Post reported. As hundreds of thousands of children had by then vaccinated, people were outraged. An investigation from the Public Attorney’s Office and media coverage only served to further complicate an already dicey situation, per the Post:

The media, too, has been accused of adding fuel to the fear. The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility found that three major newspapers concentrated on the “politics” of the scare, and it said a broadcast network sensationalized the issue by running footage of emotionally distraught parents.

The media watchdog said local news outlets should have highlighted that the Public Attorney’s Office findings “were not conclusive, and as such, should not have been given so much prominence, if it was to be reported at all.”

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Duque told the Associated Press that “the absolute answer to this outbreak” is vaccination.

The Pacific Northwest is currently facing its own ongoing measles outbreak, with confirmed cases in both Washington and Oregon. According to the most recent figures from the former’s Clark County Public Health, the number of confirmed cases in the area since the start of the year has risen to 61. In 54 of those cases, the affected individual was not vaccinated, and the majority of cases were reported in children 10 years of age or younger. Another case was also confirmed in King County by the state’s Department of Health, with four additional cases confirmed in Oregon’s Multnomah County.

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The spike in cases has largely been attributed to exemption laws in both states that allow parents or guardians to opt out of vaccines for personal or philosophical reasons. Earlier this month, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the State Capitol for a rally opposing a proposed bill to end those exemptions for the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. A Washington state House committee advanced the bill on Friday with overwhelming support from Democrats and a sole Republican vote from its sponsor Representative Paul Harris.

[Associated Press]

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