FEARS of an Ebola crisis in the country heightened on Tuesday as the medical community and health workers doubted the government’s preparedness for the disease that the World Health Organization described as the “most severe acute health emergency in modern times.”
Physicians and health workers expressed their fears as the government said it will repatriate Filipinos who want to leave Ebola-stricken countries in November, ahead of the annual influx of thousands of Filipinos from overseas for the Christmas holidays.
The influx will start this year with the arrival of about 150 Filipino peacekeepers, consisting of 112 soldiers and 28 policemen, from Ebola-hit Liberia on Nov. 10.
The fears were aired after WHO warned that the country is “vulnerable” to the deadly virus due to its migrant population and President Benigno Aquino III also agreed that a local Ebola outbreak is a
“paramount concern” for the government because there are 10 million Filipino workers overseas.
But physicians are concerned that even the United States Centers for Disease Control are now re-thinking their safety protocols after US residents developed Ebola outside of West Africa where the latest outbreak started in December 2013.
“We need clarity of ideas. We need a protocol and a checklist. We need to train people because we have not encountered Ebola in our lifetime,” physician Anthony Leachon, president of the Philippine College of Physicians, said in a television interview.
Leachon noted that only a few local centers are equipped to handle Ebola cases and he feared that even the local medical community may not be ready to handle the disease in addition to the lack of reliable safety gear for hazardous materials.
“This is a modern disease. We don’t have a vaccine for that. Even the CDC, WHO are grasping for information that we can actually convey,” Leachon noted.
Nurse Jossel Ebesate, president of the Alliance of Health Workers and chief nurse of the Philippine General Hospital, echoed Leachon’s fears.
“We are still worried that we really lack preparation at the hospital level. Primarily, we lack knowledge. Secondly, we lack equipment,” Ebesate said.
“We need to prepare more and train more,” Leachon said, noting that even established protocols are being reviewed after nurses in Spain and Texas contracted the virus from patients.
But former health secretary Dr. Esperanza Cabral said there is still time to prepare.
“If we can’t deal with it yet, we should start preparing to deal with it. Let’s put it that way,” said Cabral, who also once served as social welfare secretary.
“There have been several emerging infections that we have dealt with, like SARS and avian flu. With each one of those, we have prepared, we had prepared and fortunately these did not reach us,” Cabral said.
But even incumbent health officials have their doubts on local capability in containing the virus with Health Undersecretary Dr. Eric Tayag, who heads the National Epidemiology Center, saying it was “just a matter of time” before the Philippines reports its first Ebola case.
“Outbreak countermeasures that exist today are not enough to contain Ebola,” Tayag said over the weekend.
DOH spokesman Dr. Lyndon Lee Suy said that is why the government is urging private hospitals to do their part in preparing for Ebola.
The government, for its part, is already preparing for Ebola, according to Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr.
“We are now improving the facilities of the Research Institute for Tropical Medicines in Muntinlupa City. We are preparing the quarantine facilities that will be used,” Coloma said.
“The government is undertaking all necessary measures to protect the health and well-being of our nationals or citizens in keeping with the established protocols on managing the Ebola virus disease,” he said.
Because of this, Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. said the government may raise Alert Level 3 in Ebola-affected countries in West Africa ny the middle of November and the government will shoulder the cost of bringing back the Filipinos who wish to leave countries hit by Ebola.
Coloma said at least 1,755 Filipinos will be affected by the change in the alert level: 1,044 in Sierra Leone, 200 in Liberia, and 511 in Guinea.
But about 150 Filipino peacekeepers are also expected to return from Ebola-hit Liberia on Nov. 10.
“Unfortunately, we would not be able to give them a heroes’ welcome,” said Armed Forces of the Philippines chief Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr. because the peacekeepers will have to be quarantined for 21 days. “After that, we will give them a welcome party for passing the quarantine.”
Meanwhile, Health Sec. Enrique Ona proposed that overseas Filipino workers returning from Ebola-hit countries be required to first secure medical clearances that will show any exposure to Ebola-infected people.
He also asked OFWs to quarantine themselves for 21 days, the incubation period for Ebola, from the time they plan to board their flight.
“There are almost 3,000 OFWs in West African countries affected by the virus,” Ona said during a WHO regional meeting that is being held in Manila.
On Monday, WHO executive director Ian Smith said the Philippines is “vulnerable” to the threat of the deadly virus due to its migrant population.
According to the WHO, the current Ebola virus outbreak is the largest since 1976, with at least 4,033 fatalities out of a total of 8,399 registered cases in seven countries as of October 8.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicted the number of cases could reach 1.4 million by January unless strong measures are taken to contain the disease.
Across the globe, the sharp rise in deaths came as aid pledges to fight the outbreak have fallen well short of the $1 billion target of the United Nations.
During the meeting, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific, Dr. Shin Young-soo said results from a recent survey of the region’s members showed good preparedness to detect and respond to Ebola in addition to a regional emergency operations center that is already on high alert.
Shin reminded member-states that the Western Pacific Region has long been a hotspot for many emerging diseases, and how managing SARS, the first major disease outbreak of the 21st century, has made them stronger.
“So that they are better prepared than ever for Ebola virus disease,” pointed out Shin.
However, Shin also noted that while the risk transmission here is low, the the consequences are high so we must still be prepared.
“The Ebola crisis drives home a simple truth — investing in health security during so-called normal times is absolutely vital,” further stated Shin as he expressed gratitude to the Philippines, which has served as the home of the WHO Regional Office for the Western Pacific since 1951.
“We doubly appreciate your hospitality in hosting this year’s session of the Regional Committee,” said Shin. He underscored the importance of adapting to better serve Member States.
“At the start of my second term, I looked at ways to work harder and smarter. We must be willing to constantly reinvent ourselves to fulfill our mission of service to Member States as their health needs change,” he said.
“We must find new and innovative ways to improve on our performance. We must focus not only on what Member States need now — but also anticipate their future public health needs,” he added.
The Regional Committee Meeting that the Country will chair is expected to appraise WHO’s accomplishments for the previous year and come up with measures to further promote the health and well-being of the Western Pacific Region’s 1.8 billion population.
The Regional Committee is composed of representatives from the Region’s 37 countries and areas.
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