Media's learning curve

by  Luis Adrian Hidalgo

HEALTH AUTHORITIES and other relevant agencies have had their hands full with the emergence of at least three threats to public health in 2019. Since the Dengvaxia scare in 2017, the public health sector has been hard at work trying to rebuild the public’s trust and confidence in the immunization programs involving tested and proven vaccines, such as those against measles and polio.

Measles outbreak

Health authorities have expressed the fear that the vaccine scare would gravely affect the government’s vaccination program – and they were correct. CMFR noted a news brief in the Philippine Daily Inquirer in October 2018 which reported a 926% increase in confirmed measles cases since January of that year, as recorded by the Department of Health (DOH). And barely four months later, the DOH announced a measles outbreak in five regions, including Metro Manila.

Unlike the controversy over Dengvaxia, coverage of this outbreak was free of sensationalism and steered clear of political color.

Photo from Department of Health Facebook page, Photo by Marvin Cariso.

Media reports were straightforward in documenting the situation in public hospitals, such as that of the San Lazaro Hospital which received most cases in Metro Manila. News accounts included basic information on measles, its symptoms and complications, as well as the immunization process. Some reports included reminders that public health centers provide free measles vaccinations for children five years old and below, as provided by the law on mandatory basic immunization. (See “Measles outbreak: Countermeasures highlighted, vaccination woes revealed”)

Consequently, the media’s coverage of the outbreak also reminded the public about public health issues that were often sidelined, such as hospital overcrowding and lack of attention to grassroots health campaigns. CMFR noted a TV Patrol report which cited the views of some disheartened barangay health workers when parents refused to listen to their explanation on the benefits and proven safety of the anti-measles vaccine.

Such reports alert authorities about the need to revamp and ramp up frontline health campaigns. Noting the decline in the acceptance of the basic vaccine coverage, government still left the information campaign to their barangay health units.

Polio returns

On September 19, 2019, the DOH reported the reemergence of the dreaded polio disease which had been eradicated for nearly two decades. The department confirmed that a three-year-old girl in Lanao del Sur had contracted the disease. A second case, this time in a five-year-old boy from Laguna, was recorded the following day.

Polio’s resurgence is a consequence of the country’s low vaccination rate. Media reports noted that polio vaccination coverage in the country as of 2018 was at an average of 66%, or 29 points below the ideal 95% target. An explainer by Aksyon, CMFR noted, said the country’s polio immunization rate has been decreasing since 2012 due to the decline of cases.

The media were direct to the point as they were on the measles outbreak. Reports described the disease and recalled its history, and its successful eradication in the Philippines. News accounts also provided the science of the issue by citing health officials and health experts.

In addition to low immunization coverage and weak surveillance mechanisms, poor sanitation was also reported to have contributed to polio’s return. Some reports by TV Patrol, Rappler and the Manila Bulletin looked into the issue, reporting the need for more sanitary toilets to curb the spread of polio. Rappler and the Bulletin cited the EcoWaste Coalition’s call on Congress to provide more funds so the DOH can build more sanitary facilities. The group pointed out that out of the proposed PHP159.2 billion budget by the DOH in 2020, only PHP2 million had been allotted to stop open defecation through the construction of toilets. Unfortunately, this point was merely mentioned in passing in some reports, with subsequent accounts failing to explore what could be done about it. (See “Media on the return of polio: Missing the “why” and “how” of it”)

Threat of African swine fever

Other than vaccine-curable diseases, the Philippines was also threatened by the entry of African swine fever (ASF), as confirmed by the Department of Agriculture (DA) on September 9, 2019.  ASF is a viral disease affecting domestic and wild pigs. Prior to DA’s confirmation, pigs had been reported dying of then unknown causes, many of which were dumped in major waterways like the Marikina River, increasing the risk of its spread to other areas. Most cases of ASF have been reported in 12 areas in Bulacan, Rizal and Quezon City, reports said.

Amid the threat of ASF, CMFR noted that media reports refrained from sensationalizing the development, countering the panic with necessary information. And commendably, the coverage did not dwell on political accountability, tracking instead the possible sources of the disease. (See “African swine fever coverage: Minimizing panic, identifying lapses”)

Photo from Department of Agriculture Facebook page.

Media reports were quick to clarify what ASF is. Following the DA’s announcement, the Inquirer, Rappler and Aksyon provided explainers and fact sheets about the disease. They reported ASF symptoms and its modes of transmission, pointing out that it only affects pigs, but humans who come into contact with infected animals can become vectors and transmit the disease to other pigs. Reports also emphasized the assurances of the DOH and government veterinary offices that as long as it is properly prepared, pork is safe to eat.

Just as in the coverage of the measles and polio outbreaks, the media referred to experts, in this case the DA, as their primary source of information. News accounts reported the agency’s reminders to hog raisers, as well as the protocols for the transport, and proper culling and disposal of the pigs.

Learning curve

As the Dengvaxia scare has shown, politics tends to draw media attention away from the important issues. Fortunately, it seems the media have learned from their mistakes in the coverage of Dengvaxia and have now shifted back to referring to official sources and relevant experts who are knowledgeable on matters of public health issues.

But there’s still room for improvement. Editors and journalists on the ground must sharpen their nose for news further to catch leads that otherwise could have been missed. 

“The causes of measles outbreak involved a number of factors or elements. Loss of public confidence and  trust in vaccines in the immunization program brought about by the Dengvaxia controversy has been documented as one of many factors that contributed to vaccine hesitancy in the country. This refers to mothers who became hesitant to have their children vaccinated with vaccines that were long proven to be effective.”

Department of Health statement on “vaccine hesitancy” as the one of the reasons for the measles outbreak