efe-epaManila

Philippines authorities made passionate appeals for parents to vaccinate their children as the government launched a widespread immunization drive Wednesday to fight a deadly measles outbreak.

At least 70 deaths have occurred since the beginning of the year but the outbreak intensified last week and over 4,300 people were reported to have taken ill with symptoms of measles – a highly contagious disease transmitted through direct contact or air.

The authorities have put five regions on alert, although the highest number of affected people has been reported in Metro Manila.

An intensive vaccination program has been launched in Metro Manila and other affected areas to prevent the spread of the disease, which infects the respiratory system and can result in complications such as severe diarrhea, pneumonia, blindness and even death.

The Department of Health late Tuesday said it has formed a task force to beef up the immunization program to "urgently address the rapid increase of measles.”

Eduardo Janairo, the department head, said the task force would address the needs of measles patients in close coordination with local government units.

"Whatever they need for this activity, we will provide it to them," he said, according to the state Philippines News Agency.

Regional health offices are collaborating with the management of shopping malls, churches and food chain-stores to set up measles vaccine posts starting next week "to make the vaccine more accessible to people.”

"We will bring the vaccine closer to the patients,” Felices Emerita Perez, a medical officer said, adding the posts would be set up in addition to existing centers at health facilities.

Pia Cayetano, deputy speaker of the House of Representatives of the Philippines, called on parents to vaccinate their children and give them protection against the potentially fatal but preventable disease.

"That is very important and it's close to my heart because I was the author of the mandatory immunization, one of the laws crafted when I entered the Senate," Cayetano said.

Regions with the highest numbers of reported cases and deaths are Metro Manila (1,296 cases and 18 deaths), Calabarzon (1,086 cases and 25 deaths), Central Luzon (481 cases with 3 deaths), Western Visayas (212 cases and 4 deaths) and Northern Mindanao (189 cases and 2 deaths).

The outbreak of the disease is being attributed to the lack of vaccination in recent years, as around 2.5 million Filipino children under the age of five have not received the necessary immunization shots.

According to official data from the Epidemiology Bureau, of the 70 who have died from measles, nearly 80 percent were not vaccinated.

Many Philippine parents have refused to vaccinate their children after a scandal around dengue vaccination Dengvaxia that was used in the country between 2014 and 2017.