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Media on the return of polio: Missing the “why” and “how” of it | CMFR

Media on the return of polio: Missing the “why” and “how” of it

AFTER NEARLY two decades, the dreaded disease, poliomyelitis or polio, is back in the Philippines.

Photo from the Department of Health (DOH) Facebook page

On September 19, the Department of Health (DOH) reported the re-emergence of polio with the confirmation of a three-year-old girl in Lanao del Sur contracting the disease.  On the same day, DOH also said samples of sewage in Tondo, Manila and of waterways in Davao City had tested positive for the virus. A second case of affliction was recorded the following day involving a five-year-old boy from Laguna.

Media relied on official statements and information provided by health organizations to indicate the critical significance of these cases as the country had succeeded to eradicate the disabling childhood disease. Media reported the assessment of the high risk of polio in the country as the DOH pointed out poor sanitation practices, weak early surveillance of disease symptoms and limited vaccination coverage.

Media transmitted information released by the World Health Organization (WHO) which described polio as a highly infectious viral disease along with its symptoms. News accounts also reported government actions to address the threat. Media, however, failed to scrutinize the role of the DOH and its failure as the frontline agency on these matters. There was hardly any mention of the responsibilities of health officials so they can be held accountable.

CMFR monitored reports from the three main Manila broadsheets (Manila Bulletin, the Philippine Daily Inquirer and The Philippine Star); free TV primetime newscasts (ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol, CNN Philippines’ News Night, GMA-7’s 24 Oras and TV5’s Aksyon); as well as selected online news websites from September 19 to 24.

Direct to the point

The media what polio is, recalling the history of and the eradication of the disease in the Philippines. Reports provided the science of the issue by citing health officials and health experts.

The Inquirer and News Night on September 20 and Aksyon on September 24 did explanatory reports. Rappler also earlier published its own explainer on September 1. The reports explained how the disease is spread and what measures can help prevent it, chiefly, vaccination.

Mentioned but…

It was clear in the coverage that polio’s resurgence is at least partly due to the country’s low vaccination rate — the same reason for the surge in measles cases this year. There is also the negative impact of the politicization of the Dengvaxia controversy that led to the public’s lack of confidence in and distrust with vaccines.

Media reports noted that the oral polio vaccination coverage in the country was at an average of 66%, or below the ideal 95% vaccination coverage. Because of the decline in cases, some experts noted the complacency setting in about getting immunization against polio. Aksyon‘s explainer noted that the country’s polio immunization rate has been declining since 2012. The decline in the rate of vaccination seems to have escaped media scrutiny as journalism has become more passive, awaiting crisis before noting conditions that create severe problems. 

Clearly, today’s predicament is the result of the government failure to sustain or improve immunization efforts. The media fell short of inquiring into the hows and whys of the outbreak of the disease.

Besides low immunization coverage and weak surveillance mechanisms, poor sanitation was also reported to have contributed to polio’s return. However, the coverage merely mentioned this in passing and did not explore what could be done about it in subsequent reports.

Some reports by TV Patrol, Rappler and Bulletin looked into the issue, reporting the need for more sanitary toilets to curb the spread of polio. Rappler and 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 was allotted to stop open defecation through the construction of toilets.

The return of, and the surge in the cases of vaccine-preventable diseases is a serious public health concern. Media failed to ask the “why” and “how” of it, and to hold government to account for its failure to anticipate these possibilities.