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Meeting the Zika threat

Guesting on the occasion of International Women’s Day at the Bulong Pulungan sa Sofitel was Health Secretary Janette Garin who, I must say, is looking lovelier with each passing day, despite the many challenges facing the Department of Health.

About the most newsworthy development in the health field these days is the “discovery” that the Zika virus, which has the world health system through the World Health Organization in a fine tizzy, is “officially” now in the Philippines.

Actually, said the health secretary at yesterday’s forum, the first reported case of the Zika virus infecting a patient in the Philippines was in 2012, when doctors in Cebu detected the virus in a patient who was hospitalized for suspected dengue. This is because dengue and Zika, as well as another disease called “chikungunya,” are mostly transmitted by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.

But while dengue and chikungunya share common symptoms like fever and joint pain, and in the case of dengue may lead to death due to internal hemorrhage, the symptoms of Zika virus are “pretty mild,” said Secretary Garin, the tell-tale sign often being a mild rash that disappears after a few days.

A worldwide alert regarding Zika was raised in the last few weeks after doctors reported an alarming rise in the number of cases of “microcephaly” in countries like Brazil and Colombia and their neighbors. “Microcephaly is a birth defect where a baby’s head is much smaller than average, resulting in a smaller brain and much shorter life span. Its links to Zika, while still tentative, emerged after mothers reported experiencing mild rashes early in their pregnancy. An even more serious cause of concern is how quickly Zika-related illnesses have been reported in the rest of the world, causing WHO to raise a global alert.

The “discovery” of Zika in the country, said Garin, was triggered by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention after a woman, found with symptoms of Zika infection, reported that she had spent four weeks in the Philippines before her arrival in the United States.

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Because of the risks posed by Zika infection on pregnant women and their babies, some Latin American governments have advised women of childbearing age to postpone any plans they might have to get pregnant in the next year or so, or at least until some effective form of protection is developed.

The rise in awareness of the risks posed by Zika infection could very well lead to a spike in demand for contraception from Filipino women of childbearing age. But just as demand for family planning supplies and services is expected to rise, Filipino women are facing serious barriers in accessing the commodities and services they need.

Two of the biggest barriers are: the recent decision of Congress to slash P1 billion from the DOH budget that had been specifically allotted for the purchase of contraceptive supplies; and an existing temporary restraining order of the Supreme Court preventing the DOH from providing contraceptive implants, and requiring the Food and Drug Administration to stop honoring new applications and renewing existing licenses for contraceptives.

Just when the clamor of Filipino women for reproductive health services is expected to reach fever pitch, they will find that the government doesn’t have enough money to buy contraceptives, or that supplies of contraceptives have run out. That is, unless the DOH and the national government somehow raise the needed money, and the Supreme Court acts with dispatch and decides to honor women’s basic human right to comprehensive reproductive health services.

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And that’s the state of women’s health this current Women’s Month.

To be sure, said Garin, there is also some good news for everyone. Proceeds from the “sin tax,” for one, have allowed the DOH, with cooperation from the PhilHealth and local governments, to provide free medicines to address serious ailments among Filipinos.

Dengue, for one, is the target of a free vaccine initiative for some 1.3 million students in the country’s “dengue hotspots.” While the vaccine is, on average, deemed only 60 percent effective against all four types of dengue, said Garin, the good news is that the vaccine can reduce by as much as 93 percent the severity of the disease.

Medications for diabetes, hypertension, tuberculosis and other basic diseases—responsible for the majority of “noncommunicable” diseases that rank among the top “causes of death”—will also be given free in health centers and rural health units.

Chemotherapy drugs and procedures, which used to be so prohibitive, added Garin, will also soon be provided for free, provided the patient is a member of PhilHealth.

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So while it sometimes seems that we are eternally dancing “one step forward, two steps backward,” what with the passage of the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Law followed closely on its heels with devious budgetary and legal tactics to thwart it, Filipino women have some bright spots in the health horizon to look forward to.

One way of ensuring that we continue moving forward and stop sliding backward, I would think, is to vote for candidates who, we are sure, will champion women’s—and children’s and men’s—right to a life of health, choice, and self-determination. A life of meaning and substance.

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