Philippine Red Cross aids efforts to halt dengue and avert Zika

By Kate Marshall, IFRC

The Philippines has announced an ambitious five-year plan to vaccinate more than 1 million children against dengue to contain the spread of the dangerous mosquito-borne disease.

Until now, the only effective treatment for dengue has been preventative measures such as applying insecticides, fogging and rubbish clean-ups.

In recent decades dengue has continued to spread around the globe, infecting an estimated 400 million people last year, two-thirds of them in Asia. The disease puts a heavy load on the national budgets of developing countries, with the Philippine Government alone spending USD336 million a year on combatting it.

More than 200,000 dengue cases were reported in the Philippines last year – an increase of 80,000 cases compared with 2014. The disease has become a year-round threat as a result of more favourable breeding conditions and climate-related factors. The World Health Organisation has declared dengue a global epidemic and will include vaccination as part of its global prevention and control strategy to contain the disease.

With a budget equivalent to USD73.5 million, the launch of the Dengvaxia vaccine this month makes the Philippines the first country to make the new vaccine commercially available. It is also registered in Mexico and Brazil. The commercial release follows a series of clinical trials involving 40,000 people in Asia and Latin America. The Philippines claims to be the only country so far to complete all three phases.

The vaccine works by using a weakened form of the virus to stimulate the immune system without causing the disease. The challenge has been to develop one that is effective against all four dengue serotypes. The Department of Health’s target is to reduce the number of cases by 24% over five years. It will roll out the vaccine this month to grade 4 students in Metro Manila, central Luzon and Calabarzon, where most of last year’s serious outbreaks occurred, and follow up with a comprehensive program next year.

Dr Bhanu Pratap, Health Coordinator for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in Philippines, says the introduction of the vaccine is a positive move, especially for those living in the worst affected areas and for children.

The IFRC plans to support Philippine Red Cross health teams and volunteers to spread awareness of the vaccine to health centres and communities as part of the overall Epidemic Preparation and Response Plan.

Through its donor network, the Philippine Red Cross provides 53% of the Philippines’ total blood supply. Some dengue sufferers require platelet transfusions to stop internal bleeding. Blood platelets are essential for normal blood clotting, but donation and extraction is a time-consuming process. According to Dr Pratap the vaccine would help reduce the burden on health and blood facilities, especially in areas that are already stretched to the limit, and on the donated blood supply.

Of growing concern to the IFRC is the threat now posed by the Zika virus and its potential association with an increase in the birth of babies with microcephaly and Guillain-Barre syndrome.

‘We have already updated our information, education and communication materials to include vector-borne diseases like dengue and Zika virus, which are spread by the same Aedes Aegypti mosquito,’ said Dr Pratap.

The IFRC has launched a global appeal for 9.3 million Swiss francs (8.4 million euros) to combat the outbreak. While primarily focused on bolstering community-level responses in the Americas, the appeal will also support preparedness measures and activities in Africa, Asia Pacific, Middle East, North Africa and Europe.

Funds raised will enable National Red Cross Societies to carry out activities in ten priority intervention areas including health emergency risk management, preparedness, vector control, community based surveillance, community engagement and psychosocial support.

Even though the Philippines remains Zika free for now, health authorities are taking no chances and have put contingency measures in place.

‘Under Typhoon Haiyan recovery, Philippine Red Cross community (143) health volunteers are working closely with government officials to develop preparedness and response plans for both dengue and Zika in 68 communities, and we are adding 25 more to this plan.

Many of them are in areas with a history of dengue epidemics’, said Dr Pratap.

For more information on the IFRC’s efforts to tackle Zika outbreak visit our dedicated Microsite here