I am honored to be with you once again. I had several occasions before to express my gratitude to our country’s leading doctors, nurses, paramedical workers, private and public health officials, NGOs, media and other health workers for you are the ones in the forefront in defending our people against sicknesses and death.
Preventive rather than curative: that has always been my preference when we speak about health. And I am glad that the Philippine Foundation for Vaccination, a leading organization that seeks to protect and advocate for the promotion of vaccination as essential to disease prevention, has been our constant partner in propounding the wisdom of the preventive approach in protecting the health of our people.
The government has countless programs, but I think one stands out as vital for it could determine the state of health of our children and of all our citizenry. It could determine the future of our nation. I am referring to the National Immunization Program. As reflected in the theme for this year’s conference, “Looking Back…Moving Forward 10 years of Immunizing for…Life”, this year gives us an opportunity to reflect on our efforts in vaccination and immunization.
When it comes to vaccination and immunization, it cannot be reiterated enough that vaccines are the very foundation of public health providing inexpensive, safe, and life-long protection.
And as in any government program, we must assess the challenges of implementation, the role of partnership to better the implementation, and the introduction of new vaccines in order to make our efforts produce more positive impacts for our citizens.
Through a decade of holding the Philippine National Immunization Conference, many of you here today already know the history of immunization and vaccination programs in our country. Those years are years where our people, the poorest of them, look up to the government for the protection of their health.
Ladies and gentlemen, I know that you are fully aware that the history of vaccination and immunization in our country could also be characterized as a history of frustrations and disappointments. Successive budget allocations for health over the past years show that the government has never had enough resources for the vaccination of the entire citizenry. For the year 2010, the P33.7 billion proposed budget for the DOH is a mere 2.2 percent of the total government budget. That is just a drop in the bucket for the health needs of our people.
One such health need is vaccination and immunization. These are the best methods of safeguarding health and unless diseases stopped spreading and mutating, we cannot do without administering vaccination and immunization to our people.
Many kinds of diseases and strains of viruses have sprouted lately. Some have mutated into more deadly ones. Take the A-H1N1 as an example. Experts say it has the potential of replicating the Influenza Pandemic of 1918 which killed somewhere between 20 and 40 million people and which has been cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history (Source: Stanford University, http://virus.stanford.edu/uda/).
Some diseases, even potential pandemics like A-H1N1, need not even have to be a cause of worry. There are ways to prevent the spread of the flu; all we need is just the addition of one more shot in our National Immunization Program. While governments are busy stocking up on medicine, would it not be better to immunize our citizens against the sickness and from its life-threatening complications?
Many new vaccines are available now and even more will be ready over the next years. They include vaccines for diseases that are not now immunized against, improvements to existing vaccines, and combination vaccines. These new vaccines could save millions of Filipino lives a year.
Unfortunately, these new vaccines have not been included in our national immunization program, despite immunization being among the most cost-effective health interventions. Policy-makers may not consider a vaccine because of cost, even though an expensive vaccine may be more cost-effective than other government expense. Another obstacle is the lack of knowledge of how much illness, disability and death the pathogen causes.
Many vaccines are not part of the National Immunization Program for the usual reason that our government cannot afford, or at least it claims to be unable to afford, the addition of vaccines. It is important to keep in our minds that vaccines are worthless if not used.
In the meantime, we cannot let our children be stricken with preventable diseases that have lifelong consequences ranging from hearing loss and speech defects to more severe ones such as brain abscess and meningitis.
As I look at the situation from a legislator’s point of view, the best solution to the problem of lack of resources is the partnership between the private and the public sectors. The private sector is an ideal partner because they have the funding and facility for research while the public sector, particularly institutions such as the Philippine General Hospital, is home to skilled, intelligent and most of all, dedicated health professionals and scientists who are passionate about serving the people.
Based on the program, I am supposed to speak on vaccines and health politics in our country. To my mind, this sort of politics is as much a lack of knowledge as differences in beliefs and priorities.
A rational decision on vaccines and immunization program requires substantial information on cost accounting, safety and effectiveness, and impact. The decision to add a new vaccine to an immunization program is also often influenced by social values, perceptions, and political concerns and is not just a technical one. Policy makers would be able to make better decisions on new vaccines by clarifying the technical and operational issues through a series of technical questions.
But the issues posed by vaccination could not be reduced to mere technicalities. Ultimately, these are matters of life and death for our people. The health outcomes prevented by a vaccine cannot be quantified for these involve days of illness, time spent in hospitals, disabilities and deaths.
Doctors, nurses, health workers, and members of the health industry, once again, let me urge you to focus your sights on our common aspiration: the elimination of sickness and death caused by vaccine-preventable diseases through the development of strong, sustainable national immunization programs capable of delivering high quality vaccines in a safe and effective way to our children and even adults who need them.
I urge you to continue approaching your leaders, your legislators and present them your proposals in order for us to come up with a successful National Immunization Program.
On my part, rest assured that I have my keen eyes on the budget of the Department of Health at the Senate in my capacity as the Chairperson of the Committee on Health and Demography. And should it be necessary, I will not hesitate to propose amendments to it at the appropriate time so that it could be more responsive to the needs of our people.
Thank you very much.