Appoint DOH chief now
What the Department of Health (DOH) recently said is not exactly new: that one million Filipino children are unvaccinated, making the Philippines among the lowest 10 in the world in immunizing minors against infectious diseases. The DOH, in fact, together with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), launched the Chikiting Bakunation Days a few months ago to address the problem. The question is — how much progress has the government made in its vaccination program for children since?
Not much. By DOH officer in charge Maria Rosario Vergeire’s statement to lawmakers in budget deliberations this week that “we now have around one million children less than one year old who are unvaccinated in the country” — compared to the estimated 1.4 million as of five months ago.
As it appears, just like in the fight against COVID-19, the vaccination rate against infectious diseases has been lethargic despite the urgency of the situation. Nothing can be more indicative of the government’s indifference to health — there is, after all, still a virus going around and mutating, not to mention other diseases like monkeypox that also poses a threat to the country’s fragile health system — than the fact that almost three months since the new administration took over, a health secretary has yet to be appointed.
Last April-June under the previous administration, the government launched a nationwide vaccination campaign against polio, measles, hepatitis B, pneumonia, and other vaccine-preventable diseases in order to catch up with the lag caused by the pandemic when most of the health resources were devoted to responding to COVID-19. It is no consolation that this is not only true for the Philippines — 25 million children across the world have also missed out on lifesaving vaccines due to pandemic-related disruptions. This number is two million more than in 2020, and six million more than in 2019, according to Unicef.
But it is time for the new administration to work double time in preventing other diseases amid an earlier warning from the WHO of a global measles outbreak. Last month, Central Visayas, which includes the provinces of Bohol, Cebu, Negros Oriental, and Siquijor, reported a 1,175-percent increase in measles cases compared to the same period in 2021. Measles could weaken children’s immune systems, making them more vulnerable to other infectious diseases like pneumonia. Neglecting this would have dire consequences for children and their families, and an additional cost to government.
As it is, the DOH faces substantial cuts in its 2023 budget under two crucial programs: P4.17 billion in the prevention and control of communicable diseases (mainly due to lower requirement for personal protective equipment, according to the Department of Budget and Management) and P7.92 billion for public health management due to “low utilization rate.” These cuts are worrying, seeing how scant resources and lack of preparedness for a massive health crisis like COVID-19 imperiled the lives of Filipinos, and that the government should do its utmost to prevent a similar situation from happening again.
Unimmunized children, Unicef warned, are more likely to get serious illnesses such as hepatitis, tuberculosis, diphtheria, measles. Measles, for example, can result in complications like diarrhea, pneumonia, blindness, and malnutrition; in pregnant women, it can lead to miscarriage. Sick children can also put at risk the health of their family members, especially seniors who are equally vulnerable to diseases; at the same time, adults can also transmit diseases such as pertussis (whooping cough) that can be deadly for babies. These diseases can, in turn, spread to the community and cause an outbreak, like what happened in the case of polio. The Philippines has been polio-free for 19 years, but an outbreak happened in 2019 due to limited immunization coverage and inadequate sanitation and hygiene. While the government has declared the end of the polio outbreak in 2021, other diseases like dengue continue to threaten the country: the DOH reported 102,619 cases as of end-July, representing a 131-percent increase compared to the same period last year. The country is also likely to miss its target to find and treat 300,000 tuberculosis cases by end of the year—missing one TB case could mean spreading the disease to at least 10 other people.
Yet, despite all these urgent health issues, the DOH remains without a secretary that can offer clear policy directions. When asked why there is no health secretary yet, President Marcos Jr. said there are “many other elements” to the DOH. “We have to remember that the DOH is not about COVID alone. It’s about public health in general, so that’s another side of it. And it’s as important as COVID.”
Measles, dengue, tuberculosis, not to mention other viruses that lurk in the environment. These should be enough reasons for the President to appoint a health secretary, stat.
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