Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has called for stepped-up measures to contain a serious measles outbreak among children as the highly contagious viral disease spread across the country with the death toll climbing to 112, local reports said.
Dung issued a bulletin to all government agencies late Wednesday calling for increased vigilance as reports said that the disease has spread to 61 of the country’s 63 provinces and cities since late December in the worst outbreak in at least four years.
Tran Dac Phu, director of the Ministry of Health’s Department of Preventive Medicine, said Thursday there had been 112 reported deaths from complications arising from measles, four more than he reported the day before.
The ministry has not updated its official toll of 25 deaths directly attributed to the disease, according to state-controlled Vietnamese media, which gave widespread coverage of the measles outbreak apparently following public complaints.
Many mothers took to the Internet to complain about the press's handling of the news, according to VietNamNet.
“In the last few weeks, they have posted their gripes on their Facebook pages and on websites … Some even claimed that the Ministry of Health's published number of fatalities caused by the disease was incomplete,” it said.
Since measles re-emerged in Vietnam in December, at least 3,100 people throughout the country have been confirmed to have contracted the disease and 8,440 others are suspected of having been infected, according to officials.
The outbreak of the disease, which mainly affects children, has centered on northern Vietnam and the capital Hanoi, where some of the biggest hospitals have been overloaded with cases.
PM Dung's call
On Wednesday night, Prime Minister Dung issued an urgent circular ordering local authorities and government agencies to focus resources on preventing the spread of the disease, Vietnam News Agency reported.
The notice blamed the high death toll on the insufficient quality and quantity of vaccinations administered, the report said.
He ordered the Health Ministry to improve the standard of treatment for measles patients and to monitor the spread of the disease more closely.
He ordered the Ministry of Finance to provide stable funding for those efforts and asked the press to keep the public updated on the outbreak and preventive measures, the report said.
The re-emergence of the disease since the previous flare-up in 2009-2010 follows a UNICEF and World Health Organization vaccination campaign that aimed to eliminate measles from Vietnam by 2012.
Separate figures given by health officials for measles deaths have prompted accusations in local media that officials were trying to downplay the severity of the epidemic.
The Ministry of Health said earlier this week, after hospitals in Hanoi reported 108 deaths, that 25 of them had been directly attributable to measles, while others were linked to related complications.
Measles deaths are usually a result of complications from the disease, which is one of the leading causes of death among young children around the world despite the availability of a vaccine, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Nguyen Van Tuan, a professor of medicine at Australia’s University of New South Wales and researcher at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, said the Vietnamese government’s response to the recent measles flare-up had been weak.
“Vietnam just needs to put in more effort and provide more information to people on time and then we will be able to limit the consequences and prevent this in the future.”
“The problem in Vietnam is the system is very weak. I think the priority for Vietnam now is not about expensive medical equipment but an effective public health system.”
He said the government had not responded to the current measles outbreak as aggressively as it had to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and bird flu outbreaks in recent years that had resulted in fewer deaths.
“I remember when Vietnam had SARS or H1N1, the numbers of deaths were not as high as this time but the whole political system was engaged in trying to stop the epidemic. Now more than 100 children have died because of measles, but it seems that the political system is not engaged.”
He said it was not surprising that measles had re-emerged in Vietnam because although Vietnam has reported high vaccination rates, some of the figures represent only children who have received the first dose of the vaccine, instead of the recommended two doses.
The World Health Organization says two doses of the vaccine are needed to ensure immunity and prevent outbreaks as about 15 percent of vaccinated children fail to develop immunity from the first dose.
In Vietnam, children are recommended to have a first measles vaccination dose at 9 months old and a second after 12 months.
Tuan said another factor behind the outbreak was that Vietnamese authorities have focused in recent years on giving vaccines to children between 9 months and 9 years old, instead of to children up to 14 years old.
Vietnamese Deputy Minister of Health Nguyen Thanh Long has said recently that some 23 million kids under 14 are expected to be vaccinated against measles and rubella by 2017, according to the Vietnam News Agency.
Measles is a common childhood viral illness of the paramyxovirus family which carries symptoms of high fever, a runny nose, white spots in the mouth, and a hallmark rash.
In Vietnam’s previous measles flare-up in 2009-2010, there were two deaths, according to reports .
Reported by Mac Lam for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.