The best remedy for contagious illnesses? Legislation!

By Christal Mae B. Napone

Four years after the outbreak of the dreadful COVID-19 pandemic in the Philippines, our country is yet again facing the threat of an invisible but lethal enemy. The Pertussis cough arrived at a critical juncture in the Philippines’ public health governance. Specifically, our legislation or more appropriately, the lack of said legislation. Facing recurring threats posed by contagious diseases, both viral and bacterial, the Filipino people hold their breath while the government grapples with this deficiency.

The Department of Health (DOH) reported that the number of pertussis cases in the country reached 568 with 40 deaths from January 1 to March 16, 2024. The respiratory illness, most commonly known as whooping cough, is caused by bacteria, as opposed to the virus that caused the infamous COVID-19 pandemic. This does not make it less dangerous.

Hospitalization of severe pertussis infections was reported across all age groups, but according to study results published in Clinical Infectious Diseases, the most vulnerable to the infection were the young and old.

The current issue with Pertussis or whooping cough and its predecessor, the infamous covid 19 epidemic is directly related to the Philippines’ lack of existing legislation supporting the health sector’s holistic prevention of contagious diseases and illnesses. Yes, there are legislations in place for disease surveillance and reporting. Namely, Republic Act No. 11332, otherwise known as the “Mandatory Reporting of Notifiable Diseases and Health Events of Public Health Concern

Act”.

Unfortunately, the act primarily focuses on the efficient disease surveillance of notifiable diseases rather than preemptive measures to mitigate the spread of the contagious illness. The act lives up to its name, it mandates the reporting of notifiable diseases to provide an effective response system in cases of pandemics, epidemics, and other such public health emergencies.

I do not discount the significance and function of this law, it is indeed important for the country’s health apparatus to have a framework for the surveillance and notification of contagious illnesses. However, it is undeniable that the absence of targeted laws relating to preemptive measures to stop the spread is a huge liability and loophole in the country’s capability to enact preventive measures and address the root causes of the infection.

The Health sector has always been one of the most vital sectors in the country. It is therefore imperative that the importance of such a sector be reflected in the legislation, public policies, and support that the state provides. Contagious disease prevention is a fundamental aspect of the Department of Health’s (DOH) proactive public health measures. There are existing programs for vaccination campaigns, public education, and hygiene promotion initiatives. An example would be the DOH’s current plight of encouraging pertussis and measles vaccination.

The existence of these health initiatives and programs that help with disease prevention only serves to highlight the glaring weakness in our public health legislation. Without statutes specifically mandating initiatives for preemptive actions against contagious illnesses, all these programs remain inconsistent and limited. The Philippines needs to achieve a unified and systematic response to public health threats. The Armed Forces has legislation for emerging threats, so why can’t the Health sector as a whole, have legislation for the same purpose, albeit for a completely different group of threats?

The COVID-19 pandemic showed us how ill-prepared we are. The Philippines was used to natural disasters, from earthquakes to typhoons, and even volcanic eruptions. Unfortunately, at the start of 2020, we were devastated by another disaster, but this one is invisible and almost impossible to defend against. However, this shouldn’t have been the case. In 2013, during the onslaught of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-COV), the late Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago filed Senate Bill No. 1573, otherwise known as the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act.

Regrettably, this bill was largely ignored, and come 2020, millions of Filipino people will suffer for this negligence and lack of foresight. According to the bill’s explanatory note, the bill “gives the Department of Health the mandate to undertake measures, such as evaluation, planning, organizing, and training, to improve national preparedness for public health emergencies.”

Diseases are a natural part of living but humans have always been fighting against the natural order for a better life. The wisdom of the ancients is not to be underestimated. Even during this era of computers and smartphones, their advice cannot be ignored. As the adage goes, “An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure,” and “Hindsight is not equal to foresight.” I, along with millions of other Filipinos, can only hope that our country’s legislators will live up to their purpose and make laws for the welfare of the people.

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