Manila, March 24, 2021 --- Estimating over 100,000 deaths due to tuberculosis (TB) in the next five years, Department of Health (DOH) Secretary Francisco Duque III sounded the alarm for a swift recovery in TB care and services amid COVID-19 quarantine restrictions.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has caused enormous health and economic impacts, even affecting our TB response. But let us come together and bring our TB response back on track,” Secretary Duque said at an online advocacy event in observance of World TB Day.
Duque cited figures from a projection study of the Imperial College of London that looked into the effects of severe disruptions in TB services due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The study was made as DOH revised its national strategy in finding and starting TB treatment for as many Filipinos with TB as possible.
Duque underscored how an urgent TB response is a reflection of Universal Health Care Act in action. “The UHC Act envisions an equitable health system where every Filipino can access appropriate and quality health care without financial hardship. Through the UHC and re-energizing of our TB response, we can fulfill our promise of treating 2.5 million Filipinos with tuberculosis by the end of 2022,” said Duque.
Senator Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go echoed this concern as he pledged to oversee the amendment of the National TB Elimination Act. Senator Go filed Senate Bill 1748, seeking to change several provisions of the current TB law, including the enhancement of the TB benefits package of the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth). “Addressing TB in the country is a priority health agenda of the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte,” said Go.
In 2018, the Government of the Philippines committed to find and start on the treatment of 2.5 million Filipinos with TB by the end of 2022. “The year 2019 saw us making significant progress toward fulfilling that pledge increasing our TB program budget and TB notification cases by 20%, resulting in the logging of 1.1 million cases of tuberculosis from 2017 to 2019. However, the year 2020 presented us with the global COVID-19 pandemic, a health challenge of unprecedented scale that required immediate and thorough action,” said Duque.
DOH reported that, in 2020, TB case notification rates dropped by as much as 35% as COVID-19 restrictions prevented persons affected by TB to seek care from public and private health facilities. Working with partners, DOH implemented measures to ensure currently treating patients have access to at least one month’s supply of anti-TB medicines and respond to challenges of health care in a COVID-19 pandemic setting.
“The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) reiterates our support to the Philippines through a US$ 14.5 million technical assistance package for the national TB program,” said Mr. Lawrence Hardy II, USAID Mission Director. USAID supports case finding, diagnostic and treatment services, and innovations in the high TB burden regions of Metro Manila, Central Luzon, and CALABARZON.
Other major partners like the Philippine Coalition Against Tuberculosis (PhilCAT), World Health Organization (WHO), StopTB Partnership, and Global Fund against HIV, TB, and Malaria also responded to the call of Duque for swift and urgent action to get TB care back on track. Congresswomen Angelina Tan and Global Fund’s Mr. Urban Weber talked about accelerated response to the TB burden amid COVID-19 pandemic.
“We need to come together to bring back the access to services and scale up efforts and commitment, including from local leaders to achieve the national milestones. WHO remains committed to support early restoration of services and addressing the challenge of Tuberculosis in the Philippines,” said Dr. Rabindra Abeyasinghe, WHO country representative.
DOH and WHO recognized regions, provinces, cities and municipalities that continued TB services in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic through the Race to End TB Awards. Among the Gold Awardees in population testing rate were Region VII and Mountain Province. Leading the pack in treatment enrolment of bacteriologically confirmed TB cases were Region VI and Davao del Norte. Those with outstanding treatment success rates among drug-resistant TB were Dinagat Island, Quirino, Mountain Province and Nueva Vizcaya. Region XII and Agusan received highest honors for TB Preventive Treatment.
Over 600 TB stakeholders, including patients and survivors, joined DOH and partners in observing World TB Day with the theme “The Clock is Ticking: Find TB-Get Back on Track” in an online event that also saw the participation of new private sector partners like the Contact Center Association of the Philippines (CCAP).
CCAP president Jojo Uligan also committed to bring TB awareness to the business processing operations (BPO) industry. “As part of our health initiatives, CCAP is joining the #TBFreePH campaign to bring critical TB prevention messages to our member companies and to over 600,000 BPO workers in the country.”
Supported by USAID’s TB Innovations and Health Systems Strengthening Project, #TBFreePH is DOH’s communication campaign, aiming to elevate TB as a public health priority in the country through various platforms in social and traditional media.