Health programs of Zuellig Family Foundation

FILIPINO WORLDVIEW - Roberto R. Romulo - The Philippine Star

In 2008, the Zuellig Family Foundation (ZFF) formalized its autonomy from the Zuellig Group of Companies. Since then, ZFF’s primary focus has been on nation-building through improved and equitable community healthcare, while the Zuellig companies complement their business activities with their own corporate social responsibility projects.

ZFF aligns itself with the national government health agenda and responds to critical health challenges. This ensures that the foundation’s interventions are always relevant to the needs of the local government units (LGUs) which participate in its health leadership and governance training programs.

ZFF’s pilot program involved 72 municipalities. By 2012, ZFF’s engagement with municipal health leaders resulted in a significant reduction of maternal deaths. In 2013, then health secretary Enrique Ona requested ZFF to expand the program to 609 municipalities prioritized by the National Anti-Poverty Commission. Given the magnitude of the task, ZFF identified 11 regional academic institutions to partner with the regional offices of the Department of Health (DOH) and trained 144 faculty members to provide health and leadership training for municipal mayors. The partnership programs attracted additional support from USAID, UNFPA, UNICEF, and MSD for Mothers. All in all, these engagements covered 802 cities and municipalities, and 27 provinces.

Depends on local leadership

In the Philippines, where health is a devolved function of LGUs, policies are driven nationally, but implemented locally. Hence, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country, the effectiveness of the response of individual LGUs varied depending on the capacity of their local chief executives and municipal health workers to contain the spread of the virus and to address socio-economic concerns.

In January 2020, at the start of the pandemic, ZFF assisted its three partner provinces – Agusan del Sur, Aklan and Bataan – to assess the specific capacities and responsiveness of their health systems. When lockdowns ensued, ZFF provided the provinces with webinars and mentoring sessions on epidemiological projections, community-based response and risk communication. In addition, Zuellig made a special donation of P100 million to procure ventilators and personal protective equipment for 70 public hospitals and 37 local government units. The combined effect of those engagements enabled governors and their teams to plug gaps in their health systems and to effectively manage outbreaks.

Challenges of vaccination management

While there have been improvements in local health capacity, the provinces are now confronted with new COVID-19 variants, making pandemic response a Sisyphean task, aggravated by kinks in the government’s COVID-19 vaccination efforts. Procurement, storage, and logistics are key areas that call for improvement. In order to overcome persistent vaccine hesitancy, it is imperative that health leaders at all levels of government – national, provincial, municipal and barangay – earn the people’s trust through factual communication and effective action.

ZFF’s partner provinces are better prepared thanks to their prioritized engagement in vaccination management programs ahead of actual vaccine deliveries. Healthcare personnel have been trained to upgrade their logistical capacities to protect vaccine integrity and avoid wastage caused by improper handling and temperature excursions. The ability of the provincial governments to respond quickly and effectively was aided by their earlier work with ZFF on curative and preventive care in the local health system. The main objective of the training programs was to ensure continuity of care and a functional service delivery network, as well as to initiate the process of managerial, technical and financial integrations required by the Universal Health Care Act of 2019.

Stunting and adolescent pregnancy

As provinces continue their fight against COVID-19, they must not overlook other health issues. Two major challenges emerged due to the pandemic: rising malnutrition and stunting, and increased teenage pregnancies. ZFF has been addressing these issues for several years and is continuously adapting its programs in line with the “First 1,000 Days Law” of 2018 and the national government’s declaration of teenage pregnancy as a “national social emergency.”

In response to the widespread problem of stunting, ZFF partnered with the Kristian Gerhard Jebsen Foundation (KGJF) to address malnutrition in two towns in Northern Samar and Romblon. The approach called for the mayor to coordinate and integrate the different nutritional programs which had previously operated in silos, and to thus identify and rehabilitate nutritionally at-risk mothers and malnourished children. After two years, the intervention resulted in a 21 percent reduction of stunting among zero-to-23-month-old children. The lessons learned were incorporated in ZFF’s nutrition strategy, which is now being implemented in the cities of Puerto Princesa, Tacurong and Tagum, in partnership with Nutrition International, and in the provinces of Samar, Northern Samar, Zamboanga del Norte, Sarangani and Basilan, in partnership with UNICEF and KGJF.

Five years ago, ZFF responded to the rising incidence of adolescent pregnancies in its partner municipalities, in cooperation with the Commission on Population and Development (PopCom) and UNFPA. In 2020, the foundation entered into a partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health at Johns Hopkins University to pilot a model for developing adolescent-friendly cities and to reduce teenage pregnancies in five cities. The scaling up to 10 more cities will be done by PopCom.

The next decade

In the decade ahead, public health will remain at center stage, and the effects of COVID-19 will overshadow the nation’s health. The pandemic has shown the limitations of the Philippine health system. Massive investments in human resources, technology and facilities will be required. The role of local chief executives – governors, mayors and barangay chairmen – will be critical to achieve resilience and the successful implementation of local health programs and services.

ZFF will pursue its core program interventions on health leadership and governance, especially in relation to the implementation of the Universal Health Care Law. The foundation will, likewise, continue to focus on two major health challenges: malnutrition and stunting, and adolescent pregnancies. Just as its prototype municipal health leadership and governance program was replicated and mainstreamed, ZFF will build models that LGUs, in partnership with government agencies, can adopt to fast-track improvements in stunting, wasting, and reduction of teenage pregnancies.

For the record, I am the chairman emeritus of the foundation.

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