Former health secretary Jaime Galvez-Tan is right. The more prudent action for the Philippines at this point is not to send medical professionals to West Africa to help fight the spread of the lethal Ebola virus, but to fortify the defenses at home by ensuring that enough health and medical personnel are on standby and well-trained to handle any emergency that might arise from the deadly disease entering the country’s borders.
The Philippines’ commitment to the international community cannot be in doubt at this point. Philippine troops have served in various hotspots of the world from Timor Leste to Haiti to the Golan Heights. Filipino health workers are all over the planet, helping quell outbreaks of disease and caring for the ill. But the rampaging Ebola virus presents acute complications that should make the Philippine government think twice about sending Filipino medical aid workers willy-nilly into the hot zone of West Africa. The stakes are too high to not consider this proposition thoroughly.
According to the World Health Organization, the current Ebola outbreak has killed 4,033 people out of 8,399 cases in seven countries. Liberia has registered the highest fatalities at 2,316. Already the worst Ebola outbreak in world history, the situation appears to be merely the start of a long burn; the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has predicted that the virus could affect as many as 1.4 million people by January if stronger and more effective containment measures are not put in place.
That is extremely worrying news. The hemorrhagic disease is not only lethal but also highly transferable. “Any human touch—a simple hug, holding hands—can spread the infection,” reported the online news site GlobalPost. “With death the body’s ‘viral load’ reaches its peak. There is nothing more contagious than the corpse of the recently deceased.”
Despite its physical distance from Africa, the Philippines stands as a country vulnerable to the disease, for one reason: the presence of overseas Filipino workers in the afflicted countries. Latest available data from the Department of Foreign Affairs show that nearly 3,500 Filipinos are working in the three West African countries hardest hit by Ebola: 1,979 in Sierra Leone, 880 in Guinea and 632 in Liberia, including 148 soldiers deployed with a United Nations peacekeeping force. Neighboring Nigeria has an additional 7,051 OFWs, and Ghana 1,480.
So far, no OFWs who returned from those countries have shown signs of the illness. But it is a touch-and-go situation, given Ebola’s rapid infection rate. Spain has registered the first Ebola case contracted outside Africa: a 44-year-old nurse who had helped care for two Spanish missionaries stricken ill in that region. Spain, a well-developed country and a member of the European Union, was expected to have effective procedures in place for such an eventuality, but after apparently catching the virus, the nurse “spent ten days on holiday in Madrid, sat at a public exam and visited a health centre and hospital with her early symptoms to seek help,” reported The Economist.
“Hospital staff complain that they had only between 15 minutes and half an hour of training on protocols and how to put on protective clothing before dealing with Ebola patients. In some cases duct tape was used to seal clothing. The authorities admit that [the nurse] should perhaps have been isolated earlier.”
That lapse has caused a ripple of worry across Europe. The same oversight can very well happen in the Philippines, where public health care facilities, services and training suffer from even more egregious neglect and chronic underfunding. In the face of the looming threat from the virus, with thousands of OFWs facing the possibility of repatriation from Ebola-hit countries if the situation in those places becomes unmanageable, the work of helping contain the spread of the disease should, first and foremost, be here.
Filipino health professionals, and the public at large, need timely information and training on the right protocols to employ to respond to any outbreak. That is a potentially huge task, and the government needs all hands on deck for it. We are a country of 100 million people, 12 million packed in Metro Manila alone, with millions more working abroad who travel on the international airline grid and thus face the risk of unknowingly carrying the virus home. The world will understand our severely constrained situation—and why we need to focus on protecting ourselves at this point.
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