“Baby Robert” was Lolo Roger’s first grandson from his only daughter Nena. He could never be more than happy becoming a grandfather for the first time and more excited to take care of the little boy. But months after Robert was born, the child showed symptoms of measles, which became the cause of the untimely death of the four-month-old child. The complications killed him.
It was a sudden loss for the family of Lolo Roger, and it could not have happened only if the children in their neighborhood received complete doses of measles-containing vaccine. Robert’s record was the fourth in the barangay where there was a low compliance of only 11%.
This is only one of the many devastating stories arising in the Philippines, as more and more parents refuse to have their children vaccinated. behavior causes the vaccination compliance rate to decrease. This also rips off herd immunity or the capacity of a community to not spread measles virus if the children has at least 85% vaccination compliance.
Heeding the call for health
It was in February 2019 when 21-year-old John Carlo Borja or simply “Borj” to his peers, was on his way home when a post in his social media news feed caught his attention.
The post made Borj stop, and carefully read through the news article. Department of Health had just declared the first outbreaks of measles in five regions of the country namely National Capital Region, Central Luzon, CALABARZON, Western Visayas, and Central Visayas on February 7, 2019.
According to the article, from 1 January to 27 April 2019, there have been 33,559 recorded cases of measles, a 440% increase from last year.In 2018, there were a total of 21,812 measles cases reported.
With higher number of cases comes the bigger possibilities of fatality. In comparison to 199 deaths from January to December 2018, there was 234% increase in fatalities with 466 deaths recorded from January to April 27, 2019.
The said data reflects a Case Fatality Ratio of 1.39%. While this may seem to be likely a small number, it is considered high by the World Health Organization and UNICEF as measles is supposed to be a vaccine-preventable disease that the country aims to eradicate by 2025.
This issue being a series of lack of accountability and mistrust on the broken public health system has stoked fear to many parents and children. Data showed that Dengvaxia implementing regions had the highest number of individuals infected with measles as 6,010 cases were recorded in Calabarzon and 6,075 in Metro Manila (as of April 13, 2019).
With all these numbers brought by the current measles outbreak, Unicef Executive Director Henrietta Fore warned about ‘alarmingly high levels’ of measles cases worldwide will have ‘disastrous consequences’ for children if not enough is done to strengthen immunization campaigns.
At one point, Borj tried to think of ways on how a young person like him can help solve this issue. As a Marketing graduate with no background in health, he had doubts.
“Maraming beses na kasi akong nasabihan na kapag wala akong alam, dapat tumahimik na lang ako. Anong alam ko sa measles? Sa outbreak? Tama naman sila, wala.” (I have been told many times that I should just keep my mouth shut when it’s none of my business.. What do I know about measles? Or about the outbreak? Yes, they were right, I know nothing.)
But as days passed, Borj found himself trapped in the idealism that he was not meant to just sit and wait. That maybe, as a youth, and together with his fellow youth, they can make contribute in their unique way and help the government in addressing this health concern.
“As youth leaders for healthier communities, we cannot just be spectators of this alarming realities – we need to act and do our part.”
The story of Baby Robert and Borj’s realization sparked the launching of the YOUth for #VaccinesSaveLives Movement or VSLM, a nationwide campaign that mobilizes the youth as the government’s partner in the promotion of vaccination and conduct of Rapid Coverage Assessment in communities.
Re-activating the youth
It wasn’t a sweet start, as Borj narrates, that the VSLM had only thirteen youth volunteers who first believed that the youth can participate in this nationwide health issue. “Lahat tayo ay may kakayahang tumulong, pero kaunti lang yung nais tumulong (Everyone has the capacity to help, but only a few chooses to do so),” said Borj.
The National Youth Assessment Study (NYAS) 2015 revealed that only seven out of every ten of the respondents were involved in an organization while only 42% attended programs or activities by different organizations.
For most of the youth whom Borj tapped for this campaign, all he got were shrugs and smirks, and some even told him that he was ambitious and that the movement could go not go farther from its conception. But that didn’t stop Borj. It just made him more determined than ever.
With the help of the Ideas Positive Alumni Community, Borj started the movement in Oriental Mindoro and Marikina City with 65 youth and student leaders.
And to further back up the power of the youth, VSLM took over changing the landscape and entering possibilities for legislative actions through the training of Sangguniang Kabataan (Youth Councils) Officials.
In a span of one month, they were able to train 163 SK Officials from 27 different barangays or villages lobbying their local ordinances from the localities of Rizal Province, Oriental Mindoro, Cebu City, Iloilo City, and Tacloban City.
“Maybe I was wrong when I said only a few want to help. Because the reality is many of the youth want to engage themselves in something meaningful, they just lack the avenue on how they can turn their ideas into actions,” Borj explained.
Also serving as a Sangguniang Kabataan Chairperson in Barangay Calumpang, Binangonan, Rizal, Borj also found himself conducting the same campaign to his own community, re-educating almost 125 households and 190 children on the importance of vaccination.
For him, it was one of his best times when he was able to revisit the areas of his barangay to spread awareness, debunk the stigma and misconception on immunization, and save more children children from measles.
Making differences together
Since then, the VSLM became a nationwide campaign, from up north in Tuguegarao to Capiz, to down south in Maguindanao,Davao del Norte, and even reaching Basilan and Tawi-Tawi.
With more youth groups geared to implement the VSLM campaign in their own communities, the movement has reached almost 3,408 households, mobilized 261 youth volunteers all over the country, profiled 33 communities, which all led to the vaccination of about 1,105 children.
Forging ties with right partners
It was UNICEF Philippines who first believed that the youth can do much more to address this timely issue. With their support, the movement gained more credibility that led to the Department of Health’s official endorsement of VSLM to its regional offices. Thereafter, it was also recognized as one of the #VaccineHeroes, a strong partner promoting vaccination and ensuring that every child is saved from vaccine-preventable diseases.
“We needed to prove to these big institutions na kaya din ng kabataan. Na sa usapang health, mayroon din tayong ibubuga at nararapat tayong paniwalaan at pagkatiwalaan.”(We needed to prove to these big institutions that the youth can. That when it comes to health, the youth can contribute a lot and they must be trusted for it.)
As of writing, UNICEF and DOH are partnering with the VSLM in conducting and assessing the routine immunization program of the government, in an effort to reach more households and save more children.
Through collaborative partnerships and efforts of the government and organizations, 93% of the target population have been vaccinated already. With the ongoing initiatives and the engagement of the youth through VSLM, Borj is hopeful that sooner or later, the measles outbreak will be halted and declared over by the department, and measles cases will start decreasing.
For Borj, traveling the road less taken and defying the status quo inspired him to start the movement. He thought he could do more, and so he did. What was once his initial goal of making a change led to improving and saving other people’s’ lives. In the end, the experience also changed his life.
Throughout the hardships he encountered, the smiles of the children and their hopeful parents saying ‘salamat po’ (thank you) were all worth it.
For Borj, he vows to continue enabling and inspiring more youth like him to become agents of change for nation-building. And as long as there are children who are left behind in this health issue, the youth will continue to heed the call of building a healthier Philippines, one community at a time.
And as how Borj always loved to write on his social media posts, “Lagi’t lagi, para sa bata at para sa bayan. (Always in the service of the children and the country).”