MERS-CoV and mothers | Inquirer Opinion
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MERS-CoV and mothers

At the press conference for the stakeholders’ forum called “A Promise Renewed for Kalusugan Pangkalahatan (Universal Health),” members of the media were all agog over the possibility that MERS-CoV, or the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome-Corona Virus, had reached the Philippines.

The MERS-CoV, according to the US-based Centers for Disease Control, is a viral respiratory illness first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012. It is caused by a corona virus, a large family of viruses that, says the World Health Organization, “may cause a range of illnesses in humans, from the common cold to SARS.”

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So far, says the CDC, all MERS-CoV cases have been “linked to six countries in or near the Arabian Peninsula.” The WHO has recorded 242 confirmed cases of the illness, including 93 deaths. However, early this month, a Filipino nurse who had cared for a patient who died of MERS-CoV in Saudi Arabia, tested positive for the virus before flying to Manila but was later cleared upon further testing here. Still, health authorities are tracking down the nurse’s fellow passengers to check if any of them had been infected with MERS-CoV or was showing symptoms of the illness.

So far, the Philippines remains “MERS-CoV free.” This was what Health Assistant Secretary Paulyn Ubial assured the reporters covering the press conference. In an effort to prevent the entry of the deadly virus in the country, Ubial added, the Department of Health was seeking ways to prevent those who had had contact with infected individuals “from entering the country.” Although, if I may add my own two-bit opinion, tracking of possibly infected passengers shouldn’t be confined only to those who shared the same plane. Given how cramped and crowded the arrival area can be at our airport (especially late in the evening when the flights from the Middle East

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arrive), the possibility of an infected passenger infecting others in the same vicinity is very high.

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STILL, for now at least, MERS-CoV remains in the realm of possibility, of speculation, in the Philippines.

But I found the reporters’ preoccupation with the deadly illness instructive, and an explanation for the general indifference with which much of society considers the very serious, very real, problem of maternal and child mortality in the Philippines.

This was, after all, the theme of the stakeholders’ forum: to review the current situation of maternal and child health and possibly “enhance capacities to save mothers and children.” The forum, sponsored jointly by the DOH, the US Agency for International Development, and Unicef, was convened, as the forum’s declaration avowed: to “commit ourselves to ending preventable maternal and child deaths in the Philippines during the next decade.”

So far, said Ubial, the country is “on track” to attaining “Goal 4” of the Millennium Development Goals: to bring down the number of

“under-5” deaths to 19 per 100,000 by 2015. But as for bringing down the number of maternal deaths to 52 per 100,000 which is MDG 5, the country is “unlikely” to reach that goal, she said.

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Indeed, the number of women dying of causes linked to pregnancy and delivery has even risen, to 221 as tracked in the latest survey.

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BUT is anyone panicking? Is the Filipino public raising a hue and cry over the rising numbers of mothers dying even as they give life? When will maternal mortality lead the news agenda and send reporters scrambling to cover stories of their premature, unnecessary deaths?

“What we want to emphasize is that maternal deaths are really preventable,” said Rena Dona of the UN Population Fund. But to prevent these deaths, the resource persons agreed, the public and the health system will need to start even

before the women give birth (or get pregnant), making maternal care available as early as possible, encourage women to seek regular quality prenatal care, and to make it accessible and affordable for them to deliver in health facilities (and not at home), under the care of a trained provider.

Dr. Mariella Castillo of Unicef added that a crucial factor is the empowerment of women, civil society groups and communities to “strengthen the demand side,” so that it is up to ordinary citizens to hold local officials and health personnel to a certain “standard of quality health services.”

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IN A related development, the new Unicef representative to the Philippines, Lotta Sylwander, recently submitted her credentials to Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario.

As Unicef representative, Sylwander is providing strategic leadership in the design and implementation of programs on health, on education, on protection and for the wellbeing of Filipino children, a news release said.

In an interview, Sylwander said the Philippines “is such an interesting country, with so much capacity and energy. I am looking forward to working with the government to improve the lives of children who make up half of the country’s population.”

Before coming to the Philippines, Sylwander served as the Unicef representative to Vietnam from 2010 to 2014. Her efforts led to a stronger focus on child protection, social protection, and ethnic minority issues, and to decentralized planning and programming.

Sylwander and her team worked in close collaboration with Vietnam’s Ministry of Justice and justice agencies to promote the establishment of a child-friendly justice system, including for children in conflict with the law and child victims and witnesses of crime.

Sylwander is a citizen of Sweden.

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TAGS: column, MERS-CoV, mothers, Rina Jimenez-David
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