Vigilance is better than cure


Don’t worry, don’t panic. This essentially was the message of the Department of Health (DOH) in addressing concerns over the detected cases of mycoplasma pneumoniae or “walking pneumonia” in the country. The four patients diagnosed with the disease have already recovered, it said, and that such cases were “not new.”

“Only 4 (0.08 percent) of the confirmed [influenza-like illnesses] cases from January up to Nov. 25, 2023 were due to M. pneumoniae or ‘walking pneumonia’ … More than half of confirmed ILI cases were due to other well-known and commonly detected pathogens,” the DOH said in a statement. It noted that one case of mycoplasma pneumoniae was reported in January, another in July, and two more in September.

Three years of anxiety

But who can blame Filipinos for being skeptical, even paranoid, given the DOH’s track record? It has only been a few months since the global health emergency over COVID-19 was lifted and the local economy started to recover, but the public has not forgotten the three years of anxiety and uncertainties marked by the loss of jobs caused by the economic slowdown, and worse, the loss of lives due to the coronavirus. In early 2020, when COVID-19 was first detected in the country, the DOH said it was on top of the situation. It had to take one death—the first death from the coronavirus outside China where it originated—before the government took drastic measures and imposed a travel ban on international flights and, by then, the virus had already spread. The government would eventually impose the world’s longest lockdown.

Indeed, there might be no need to panic since seasonal influenza or the flu is common at this time of the year. There is also the assumption that the government has learned its lessons from the COVID-19 crisis—but apparently not. The DOH reported a 45-percent increase in influenza-like illnesses from Jan. 1 to Oct. 13, or a total of 151,375 cases; however, this has only been highlighted following reports of walking pneumonia in other parts of the world. Moreover, the DOH admitted that some cases may not have been officially categorized as walking pneumonia because doctors administered antibiotics right away and no longer recommended further tests for the patients. Clearly, there is still a lack of transparency in health reporting as well as thorough checking of viruses by health authorities.

No cause for alarm

Mycoplasma pneumoniae, described as an “atypical” bacterium that causes lung infection, has been detected in China, Denmark, France, and the United States, among others. In the United Kingdom, there has been a rise in pertussis or whooping cough, a bacterial infection of the lungs. Health officials have so far found no cause for alarm and these cases have been attributed to normal seasonal increases in viral and bacterial disease and the easing of restrictions that has seen the return of normal public interactions and habits.

Mycoplasma pneumoniae symptoms include fatigue, sore throat or pharyngitis, low fever, chest pain, cough, sneezing, and headache—signs that are similar to other respiratory conditions like bronchitis, flu, and the common cold. Doctors warned that the coughing up of a mix of mucus and saliva can persist beyond seven days, unlike common viral infections that last only five days. The DOH said that while the infection can be mild, vulnerable individuals can be at risk of developing a more severe form of health condition.

The national government has not issued any directive yet but the DOH has advised Filipinos to wear masks again and observe other preventive measures including handwashing, ensuring adequate ventilation, and vaccination. The Bureau of Corrections has reimposed the mandatory face mask policy within its facilities, especially in the New Bilibid Prison, which has major congestion problems that could pose risks to inmates when respiratory infections spread.

Like headless chickens

By now, the government should be proactive in preventing the rise of infectious diseases, checking hospital preparedness, and accelerating vaccination efforts. That bizarre waves of bacterial infections have been observed in other parts of the world warrants the government, particularly the DOH, to be more vigilant and not take chances. We don’t want to see our health system being overwhelmed again and health authorities running around like headless chickens while billions in taxpayer money are lost to inflated purchases and other forms of corruption. The public, too, should do their part. In countries like Japan, wearing a mask has been the default precaution taken at the first sign of flu—that should also be the case here, especially during the busy holiday season when malls are packed making it easy to catch a virus.

COVID should have taught us that we cannot take our health for granted, and taught our government that, indeed, prevention—as well as transparency and extra vigilance— is always more practical and less expensive than cure.