Still the No. 1 ‘killer’ disease in the Philippines
COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - November 22, 2019 - 12:00am

The first reported suspected case of vapes-related illness, the rising polio cases and other public health issues were just among the most urgent national health issues we tackled in this week’s edition of our Kapihan sa Manila Bay. We have invited to these discussions medical experts and concerned advocates/ groups who joined us at Kapihan sa Manila Bay at Cafe Adriatico in Remedios Circle, Malate last Wednesday.

Department of Health (DOH) Undersecretary, Dr. Rolando Enrique Domingo, undersecretary for health regulation and concurrently as “acting” director general of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and House committee on health chairperson Quezon Province Rep. Angelita “Helen” Tan gave their respective reassurances of the government’s being on top of the situation in addressing these potential public health hazards.

From the private sector stakeholders, we were joined by Dr. Anna Ong-Lim, president of the Pediatric Infectious Disease Society of the Philippines; former Bulacan Governor Roberto “Obet” Pagdanganan, founding chairman of Coalition for Health Advocacy and Transparency; and Ang SINAG president Rosendo So who took up the cudgels for the agriculture-affected sector on the African Swine Flu (ASF).

An ophthalmologist by profession, Usec Domingo noted with concern the resurgence of polio with the latest addition of three more confirmed cases of children tested positive of this infectious disease. This brings a total of seven children confirmed of having contracted poliovirus infection. All seven children were unvaccinated with anti-polio shots and neither did they undergo oral polio while they were still babies. Except for one, all six polio-infected children came from Mindanao provinces.

In an official statement released later that day, DOH Secretary Dr. Francisco Duque III bewailed as “unacceptable” that more children fell ill to this vaccine-preventable disease. “We are more determined than ever to make sure that no child shall be missed during the next round of the Sabayang Patak Kontra Polio in Metro Manila and Mindanao,” Duque vowed.

Largely due to poor sanitation, the poliovirus has supposedly been eradicated already in the Philippines in the 1970’s. Since we have zero polio in the past two decades, the resurgence of one case is considered one too many. Thus, the DOH had no choice but to declare it epidemic level already.

Because of this, the Philippines is now included in the global watch list of the World Health Organization (WHO) where travellers from the country are required to secure a “yellow card” certification that they have polio immunization.

Mostly affected by this “yellow card” requirement are our overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who must secure the WHO “yellow” card from the Bureau of Quarantine of the DOH.

Although the anti-polio injections are administered for free, Domingo clarified they must pay for the “yellow card” for P300 international fee being collected for it by the Bureau of Quarantine. He said this fee does not accrue to the DOH but is remitted to the “yellow card” issuing international agency. He called out though to parents and guardians to ensure completion of the three doses of polio vaccines.

Dr. Lim shared the concern of the DOH at the start of this year, several outbreaks which were related to deaths and preventable illnesses were largely due to lack of immunization of infants and children who are most susceptible to these communicable diseases. She cited the fact the anti-polio vaccine is available in all public health centers without having to pay for them. “We, parents, just have to bring our children there to be vaccinated. Let’s not deprived our children of this protection,” she urged.

Pagdanganan, for his part, explained his group’s advocacy is to bring down the costs of out-of-pocket expenses of patients with the passage into law of the Universal Health Care program being implemented by the DOH. “Because right now this still accounts for more than half of total hospital expenses of patients, at 88% spent on medicines. So we have to do something about that,” he pointed out.

Congresswoman Tan announced during our Kapihan sa Manila Bay that the House of Representatives has adopted and immediately approved the Senate Bill version creating the Malasakit Centers all over the country. The Malasakit Center is the pet bill of neophyte Senator Christopher “Bong” Go who sought to put up this “one-stop” center for all government agencies that extend financial assistance to poor and indigent patients for their hospital bills.

 In the performance of its oversight functions, Tan cited the cooperation of various health and medical stakeholders, including private hospitals in the crafting of the implementing rules and regulations of the Universal Health Care program that complements the Malasakit Centers.

Herself a doctor, Rep. Tan welcomed the latest policy declaration of President Duterte to include “vaping” in the ban against smoking in public places. However, Tan recalled the public hearings in Congress while they were trying to amend Republic Act (RA) 9211 or the Tobacco Control Act, principally to increase the age from 18 to 21 who would be allowed to buy and use tobacco products, and the proposed bill to regulate the use and sale of vapes and e-cigarettes.

“Some of the resource speakers during the hearing, the smokers were telling us: ‘It’s also our rights. You’re depriving our rights.’ It’s a freedom they invoke. They know the risks, so it’s up to them,” she pointed out.

The Congresswoman, however, clarified she has been working closely with the DOH in crafting the proposed amendments to RA 9211 as well as the bill that would strictly regulate the sale and use of these so-called “sin” products.

Cigarette smoking, according to the same DOH official, remains the No. 1 preventable cause of death and disability in the Philippines.

However, Tan conceded it would really not be possible to ban the importation of vapes and e-cigarettes as much as she, the DOH and President Duterte wish to happen. The Palace legal team is now working on it.

(For lack of space,the ASF issue will be tackled in this column on Monday.)

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