More than a year has passed since the onset of COVID-19, and the world has mobilized efforts to mitigate the pandemic’s impact, such as mass vaccination to reach herd immunity. In the Philippines, as of mid-October 2021, over 24 million Filipinos have been fully vaccinated (or approximately 22% of the total population). Despite this progress and efforts to accelerate nationwide vaccination, there still are 28 million Filipinos yet to receive their full dose and another 21 million — of the 70 million target vaccinations — who remain unvaccinated to date.
While COVID-19 vaccination plans have prioritized vulnerable groups, such as the elderly and those with comorbidities, in order to curb COVID-19’s impact, the inclusion of other vulnerable segments of the Philippine population, such as those with mental health conditions, remains unclear.
To understand this dynamic better, local experts were invited to a roundtable discussion (RTD) about the current direction of the Philippines in advancing vaccine equity and mental health during COVID-19. Four experts joined the RTD, namely Department of Health (DOH) Undersecretary for Health Dr. Maria Rosario Singh-Vergeire, Health Technology Assessment Council Core Member Dr. Maria Cariness Alejandria, National Immunization Technical Advisory Group Member Dr. Nina Castillo-Carandang, and Philippine Alliance of Patient Organizations Board Member Mr. Chris Muñoz (see bottom for expert bios).
Dr. Castillo-Carandang and Mr. Muñoz shared personal accounts of the realities of different communities, ranging from vaccine hesitancy to lack of access on the ground. Dr. Alejandria clarified that these on-the-ground challenges might also be driven by the wider global context. For example, the Philippines belongs to the Global South: countries that are less prioritized to receive allocations of the global COVID-19 vaccine supply. In the face of limited supply, Dr. Castillo-Carandang elucidated how vaccine equity should also start at home by diversifying the vaccine brands available, supporting the idea that there should be no preference between vaccine options.
Ensuring vaccine equity is indeed a complex process that the DOH cannot do alone. Acknowledging the Department’s limitations, the DOH convened a cadre of different experts to guide its policies and recommendations for the COVID-19 response. These are discussed briefly in the table below.
|Expert group||Support provided to the DOH|
|National Immunization Technical Advisory Group||Guidance on COVID vaccine prioritization and equity considerations|
|Technical Advisory Group (TAG)||Overall strategies in COVID response which includes vaccination|
|National Adverse Events Following Immunization Council (NAEFIC)||Causality assessment and safety of COVID vaccines|
|Health Technology Assessment Council (HTAC)||Equity considerations and societal and cost implication of COVID vaccines|
|Vaccines Expert Panel (VEP)||Early insights on COVID vaccine clinical trials and evidence|
|National Clinical Practice Guidelines Group (NCPGg)||Appraisal of published COVID vaccine clinical evidence|
As emphasized by Undersecretary Vergeire, discussions within the said roster of experts are extensive, ensuring that no stones are left unturned in distilling the best recommendations. To date, the DOH has expressed confidence that all of its released policy recommendations and decisions were based on the experts’ comprehensive deliberation.
Meanwhile, Mr. Muñoz echoed the stance of patient communities, which anchors on the co-creation of policies — the process where patients and communities participate in the development of a public policy or program. Adding onto Mr. Muñoz’s point, Dr. Castillo-Carandang emphasized how the policy space needs to be navigated with informed and proactive co-creation.
In addition to co-creation, Dr. Castillo-Carandang discussed the value of meaningfully engaging public officials and politicians as partners in addressing the “infodemic” and reaching the most vaccine-hesitant at the grassroots level. Alongside the most vaccine-hesitant, Filipinos diagnosed with mental illness are of paramount importance within the COVID vaccine prioritization scheme, as highlighted by Dr. Alejandria. Persons diagnosed with mental illnesses are at a higher risk of hospitalization and death due to COVID-19 compared to those without mental health conditions. Undersecretary Vergeire also acknowledged that systems and processes are underway to prioritize persons with mental health conditions in the COVID vaccine roll-out.
In closing, all experts shared what gives them hope and highlighted the need to keep holding onto the line amid the uncertainty. With a reminder that vaccination is an anxiety-provoking process, Dr. Castillo-Carandang raised an excellent call to action: the different sectors should collaborate to make the vaccination process less anxiety-provoking, starting from education and promotion to implementation.
Lastly, Undersecretary Vergeire expressed hope, based on the knowledge that the scientific community continues to rally behind the DOH to guide the Department and national officials in the country’s COVID-19 response.
From this insightful roundtable discussion, the following key points emerged:
Finally, amid all uncertainties, there is still hope. The debate among the multiple stakeholders, including interdisciplinary experts and community representatives, is often robust. Still, there is always the opportunity to improve and co-create policy options to reach both vaccine equity and mental health equity.