The need for a Philippine CDC
The President has made a timely call on lawmakers to prioritize bills creating the country’s own virology and disease control center similar to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which is mainly tasked with detecting and responding to emerging health threats. The threat of another pandemic always lurks in the background and, just late last month, the Philippines confirmed its first case of monkeypox, a highly infectious pox virus.
Monkeypox makes for a good case of a virus that has been largely overlooked since it was first detected more than six decades ago and is now spreading across the world. Having a monkeypox outbreak when COVID remains a threat is the last thing the country needs right now, especially when the Department of Health (DOH) is still without a secretary.
Scientists have previously warned that it’s just a matter of time before another virus wreaks havoc on the world in a similar fashion or even worse than COVID-19, especially since zoonoses—infectious diseases that jump from animals to humans—have made the possibility of another pandemic happening even higher than before. Seeing how the government mishandled its COVID-19 pandemic response, where millions—whether in terms of jobs, taxpayer money, or vaccines—were lost or wasted, it would be in the country’s best interest if an institution primarily tasked to forecast, monitor, and prevent communicable and noncommunicable diseases be established.
The bills filed on the creation of a Philippine CDC—two at the Senate and 19 at the House of Representatives, so far—seek to separate the task of detecting and preventing emerging diseases from the DOH. The proposed CDC will be responsible for defining policies and protocols including identifying diseases and their syndromes, contact tracing, and emergency health interventions. The previous administration has bungled many of these steps in handling COVID-19, and while it is true that the rest of the world was also caught unprepared, these missteps should guide the government in improving future pandemic responses.
The government’s lack of preparedness in handling the COVID-19 pandemic was made obvious by confusing policies issued by different government agencies and decision-making largely influenced by politics more than by science.
Albay Rep. Joey Salceda, author of one of the bills proposing the CDC, noted that addressing health risks “can no longer be approached from the recesses of current bureaucracy.” He pointed to the lack of institutional capacity to implement comprehensive public health management programs and how this has stymied the country’s ability to address the risk of communicable diseases. An example would be border law enforcement which has been more focused on human trafficking and smuggling but not on public health protection. To recall, it took a month before the previous administration banned flights from China in January 2020, and by then, two Chinese nationals infected with COVID-19 have managed to enter the country. “Clearly,” Salceda said, “the country’s reactive, bureaucracy-challenged approach to communicable diseases no longer serves to adequately protect the country from serious, often fatal infectious diseases.”
The bill filed by Sen. Pia Cayetano proposes to establish four centers under the CDC for statistics, surveillance and epidemiology, research, and laboratories. While all of these are equally important in the prevention of diseases, emphasis should be made on research and development, an area that the government has notoriously overlooked.
Embedding research at the heart of any pandemic response, World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, can protect the world from future epidemics and pandemics. In a report released last March, the WHO said governments across the world can be better prepared and coordinated in response to future outbreaks by ensuring that diseases “are detected and even prevented at an early stage.” This can only be done by empowering research institutions and researchers—an appeal long made by local scientists. The WHO added that low- or middle-income countries should build their manufacturing capacity so they will have access to life-saving treatments and vaccines.
The COVID-19 experience should guide the government in improving its capacity to prevent and control future outbreaks. The lives lost from the pandemic can no longer be recovered, but the government can still save lives by centralizing its response to future health emergencies under a body that will implement clear-cut policies and protocols. There is simply no more room for confusion and repeating past mistakes.
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