Global Concern for Non-Communicable Disease

Sec. Enrique Ona at the UN High-Level Meeting in New YorkSec. Enrique Ona at the UN High-Level Meeting in New York


     In August, the news that Jukebox King April Boy Regino was suffering from prostate cancer shocked the local entertainment industry. By October, the news that he was “cured” by taking the food supplement was even more shocking to many outside showbiz. Anyway, the news died a natural death, so-to-speak.

     But the real shocking news happened on September 23 when it was announced that the non-showbiz husband of television actress, Camille Prats, succumbed to nasopharyngeal (throat) cancer.  Anthony Linsangan was only 32.

     And then there was the revelation made by actor Albert Martinez as his wife, Liezel, struggles with recurring cancer. In ABS CBN’s “The Buzz” on October 16 Martinez said that when he found out about the health condition of his wife, his whole world shattered again.  He said he thought that her wife’s condition was already doing well for the past two years. Earlier, Liezel was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer and went through mastectomy, a surgery done for removing the breast.  In 2010, she was cleared of the deadly disease.

     Cancer and other noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) are now major threats to public health, globally. In 2008, the World Health Organization reported that

     NCDs cause an estimated 35 million deaths each year, and 60 per cent of these deaths are due to four main noncommunicable diseases, namely cardiovascular diseases (heart disease and stroke), diabetes mellitus, chronic respiratory diseases, and cancers. Worse, 80 per cent of these deaths occur in low to middle income countries, where the Philippines belong. In fact, the seven out of 10 leading causes of death in the country are due to NCDs.

     And recent demographics show that people having NCDs are not confined to the older generation as it used to be, but they are affecting the younger and most productive age group, just like what happened to Prat’s husband. NCDs are brought about by tobacco use, excessive alcohol drinking, unhealthy diet and physical inactivity. These are lifestyles that most people love to do and habits that are too hard to break.

     NCDs seldom hit big in media’s attention maybe because these diseases are not contagious and do not crowd hospital beds at any given time. Nevertheless, global attention this year focused on NCDs. From Moscow in April to Geneva in May, and on to New York in June and September, health ministers and world leaders tackled the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases in international meetings and conferences.

     At the United Nations (UN) High-Level Meeting held in New York on September 19 and 20, world leaders unanimously adopted the Political Declaration on NCDs, agreeing that “the global burden and threat of NCDs constitutes one of the major challenges for development in the 21st century, which undermines social and economic development throughout the world.” However, this meeting fell short of setting goals or targets. Countries now are urged to factor in NCDs into their longer term health planning alongside other pressing health challenges. Global investments for NCDs and stronger commitments and actions by countries and their leaders are important. But measures to control NCDs often need government action such as taxation, regulation and advertising curbs that bring politicians into conflict with tobacco, food and alcohol industries. If nothing is to be done now, the world is bound to have a sick future ahead.

     Health Secretary Enrique T. Ona said that lost productivity and high health care costs of catastrophic outcomes resulting from NCD can certainly drive any family into impoverishment and poverty.  He added, “You can just imagine how this will impact to those who are already very poor to begin with. Sadly, this is always the story when it comes to non-communicable diseases. As a clinician, I’ve seen this so many times in my practice.”

     He stressed that the Department of Health’s health reform agenda of Kalusugan Pangkalahatan is directed towards improving access of the poor to quality health care. It incorporates providing financial risk protection through the expanded coverage and enhanced benefits of PhilHealth (national health insurance program) and improving the quality of health services particularly in the public sector through health facilities enhancement.

      DOH is placing up-to-date diagnostic equipment that will allow health facilities to respond to the common health care needs which include management of noncommunicable diseases and trauma. Likewise, the DOH Complete Treatment Pack has been introduced this year and this will make a number of maintenance medications for hypertension and diabetes more accessible for the poor.

     Interventions are also directed at making the society and environment conducive to healthy lifestyles. To a great extent, NCDs can be prevented if Filipinos are able to modify the risk factors. Ona said that the restructuring of excise taxes for sin products is one of the priority legislations of the Aquino administration. And to do this, he added, we need to empower people to be responsible for their own health. We need to educate them about the potential harm that unhealthy lifestyles would bring. This is essentially what health promotion is all about.  

     Ona said, “While many see its value in infusing more funds for the health sector, the government also recognizes its potential in deterring potential smokers, particularly the youth, to engage in the deadly habit. A long battle lies ahead of us to pass this law, but I believe that with everyone’s support we can do it.” 

     Meanwhile, the DOH, together with the Departments of Social Welfare and Development and Education, started to mobilize the Community Health Teams in October to provide comprehensive public health services such as immunization, family planning counseling, among others right at the doorstep of families. Part of the services they will perform is to deliver these key messages on healthy lifestyles: avoid tobacco smoking and excessive alcohol use, have a balanced diet and regular exercise.  The DOH believes that health promotion strategies are best done at the level of the community and the family.

     On May 15, the DOH staged “Ehersisyong Pangkalusugan Para sa Lahat” campaign which was participated in by the President himself.  This made a lot of attention especially since it was the President talking about healthy lifestyle and exercise. Then on May 31, World No Tobacco Day, the DOH was delighted by the increasing number of local government units, government hospitals and offices making great strides in protecting people from secondhand smoke, raising the number of participants in this year’s DOH Red Orchid Awards.  In September, the Philippine Medical Association forged an agreement with the DOH in a health promotion strategy utilizing all forms of media, including the Internet, to change people’s behaviors towards healthy living and lifestyle.

     In the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations), the Philippines is the lead country to undertake strategies of revitalizing and facilitating enabling environments for ensuring promotion of healthy lifestyle for the people of the region.

     All the country’s current efforts in the prevention and control of NCDs also entail partnerships with all sectors of society - government agencies, local governments, private sector, and non-governmental and faith-based organizations, among others. And most specially, the Philippines is one with the world in the fight against NCDs.