The fight against pneumonia

Buena Bernal

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Pneumonia is one of the primary causes of infant mortality in the Philippines


BUTUAN CITY, Philippines – The New Year spirit was just about to subside when a 5-month-old baby from the small barangay (village) of Ampayon in Agusan del Norte province caught high fever.


In the morning of January 11, baby Bea (not her real name) was rushed to the Butuan Medical Center (BMC), where she stayed for 6 days. She was diagnosed with pneumonia, an infectious lung condition that claimed 37 infant-lives a day in 2008.


On January 17 – a little over two weeks after the clanging of kitchenware and the feasting over pansit (Filipino fried noodle dish) that represents “long life” – baby Bea passed away.


Bea is only one of the 74 deaths in BMC caused by the respiratory infection since January. The hospital records show that pneumonia is the leading cause of mortality, affecting both young and old, since 2012.


“The record shows we do have about 6 to 7 admissions a day. But we have one or two mortalities in a month. For me, it’s so alarming,” said BMC officer-in-charge Dr Jennifer Chua, referring only to infant cases of pneumonia.


Eighteen more BMC patients under the age of 5 have died due to pneumonia after baby Bea.


‘Well preventable’


The situation in BMC reflects that of the country, where pneumonia is one of the primary causes of infant mortality.


The Department of Health (DOH) seeks to reverse this trend by providing free pneumococcal vaccinations through the agency’s expanded program on immunization starting July 17 – a feat they say can save P23,500 in costs per infant.


According to Dr Chua, immunizations programs in the barangay-level provided by the local city government helped reduce the number of hospital admissions.


“Just like tuberculosis, there’s already a vaccination. Talagang pa-down na yung cases (Cases are already declining). Measles, almost zero already,” she explained.


The Center of Health Development (CHD) in the CARAGA region reported that the deaths caused by the disease are unfortunate because they could have been prevented through vaccination.


“Pneumonia is a well preventable disease that may claim the lives of children, if we do not heed (calls for) action against it,” said Dr Ariel Valencia, Regional Director of CHD-CARAGA.


CHD-CARAGA also noted that exclusive breastfeeding from birth up to two years, frequent handwashing, and proper nutrition aside from vaccination can help prevent the disease.

PNEUMONIA PATIENT. A child who is sick of pneumonia is examined by medical personnel at a free medical service at a park in Manila, 16 December 2006. File photo by AFP/Joel Nito


Neglect of health


Dr Chua of BMC said the prevalence of the disease is caused by multiple factors. One of the leading factors is that health is given low priority at the household level. 


“Siguro, binabalewala lang nila yung mga fever-fever that’s why pagpunta ng hospital they are already in the severe stage,” said Dr Chua in an interview. (Maybe they just ignore the fever that’s why when they get to the hospital, they are already in the sever stage.)


It took 3 weeks before Heidi Lisa Bradanos brought her 4-year-old son Chris Daniel, another pneumonia patient, to the public hospital for laboratory testing.


It is their second week in the hospital now, and the costs so far are estimated to be at P30,000.


Other problems


Local health officials are thankful that DOH chose Butuan City as the launching pad of the inclusion of pneumococcal vaccine in the nationwide immunization program. 


But the city of Butuan is faced with more challenges in the provision of healthcare services beyond the lack of infant vaccinations to certain diseases.


The city has 86 barangays divided in 3 districts with an estimated population of 300,000. There is only one doctor who provides primary health care in every district.


Tertiary health care is marred with capacity problems. The city’s public hospital caters to nearly 200 patients a day, double the hospital’s capacity based on its license with the DOH.


Immunization program


The health department’s expanded program on immunization (EPI) has upgraded its services since its inception in 1976.


Republic Act 10152 or the Mandatory Infants and Children Health Immunization Law was passed 3 years ago. The landmark legislation mandates free immunization in government hospitals and health centers for children 5-years old and below.


“[The legislation] has raised the bar of quality health services by providing opportunities to cover the most vulnerable population,” said Asst Secretary of Health Eric Tayag during the launch of “DOHbol Time Laban sa Pulmonya (Fight Against Pneumonia)” on Wednesday, July 17.


Dr Joyce Ducusin, DOH-EPI national coordinator, said the strong growth in the nation’s economy has helped in expanding the budget for healthcare. The current EPI budget allocation is at P2.4 billion.


“This is part of our goal to achieve better health outcomes and meet our health-related Millennium Development Goals by strengthening existing public health programs,” said Health Secretary Enrique Ona in a statement.


The program is meant to prevent deaths like baby Bea’s. It is hoped that the 333,000 infant-recipients of the pneumococcal vaccine wouldn’t have to suffer the same fate. –



Butuan Medical Center is a public hospital run by the city government of Butuan in Agusan del Norte (previously stated as Agusan del Sur; the writer apologizes) in Mindanao. It welcomes funding from external sources.


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