After death of Lanao del Norte doctor, LGUs urged to secure health workers

MANILA, Philippines – While health officials consider it an isolated case, the death of physician Dreyfuss Perlas put the security of health workers in the spotlight, especially those working in far-flung areas.

Under the government's Doctors to the Barrios (DTTB) program alone, there have been 21 incidents involving volunteer doctors since the program was established in 1994. There have been 7 deaths, but only two died while they were still with the program.

"This really has to stop, kailangang matiyak ng [local government unit] 'yung security ng health worker nila," said Irene Fariñas of the DTTB Foundation. (READ: DOH to 'revisit, amend' Magna Carta of Public Health Workers)

(This really has to stop, the local government unit has to ensure the security of their health workers.)

"Hindi puwedeng ipagkibit-balikat, maging kampante [ang] health workers. Mayroon talagang taong magagalit sa 'yo. [The] LGU has to provide security. 'Pag nakatanggap ng death threats, isumbong na at mag-request na ng security," she added.

(We can't ignore this, health workers can't be complacent. Some people will really be angry at you. The LGU has to provide security. If you get death threats, let authorities know already and request security.)

Perlas, a former DTTB volunteer, was shot dead on March 1 while riding his motorbike in Barangay Maranding Annex, in Lala, Lanao del Norte.

In December, the municipal health officer of Sapad, Lanao del Norte had already considered leaving the municipality "because of some threats."

The police said they are looking at jealousy or family pride as a possible reason for Perlas' murder. (READ: DOJ to NBI: Probe death of volunteer doctor in Lanao del Norte)

According to Elvira Dayrit, director of the health department's Health Human Resource Development Bureau, a total of 289 volunteers are deployed to doctor-less municipalities under the latest DTTB batch. Most of them are serving in 5th and 6th class municipalities.

"Talagang kung saan walang doktor, 'yun talaga ang assignment nila. Walang Doctor to the Barrio na pumupunta sa municipality na may doktor na," Dayrit explained.

(Their assignment is really to serve in places where there are no doctors. No Doctor to the Barrio goes to a municipality with a doctor.)

She noted that volunteers choose where they want to serve, and Perlas chose to serve in Sapad.

"Dr Perlas had a choice, and he chose to go to Lanao, and he stayed," she added. (READ: Family, friends of slain volunteer doctor appeal for justice)

Fariñas, who used to be a DTTB volunteer in Ilocos Norte back in 1999, said doctors in far-flung areas face different challenges, such as "political pressures, political bullying, unsupportive LGU leaders, [and] lack of health care equipment."

"Mayroon ding sexual harassment issues [na] nakakarating sa amin. Hindi rin naman naiimbestigahan, hindi nagkakaroon ng incident report (There are also sexual harassment issues that reach us. But they're not investigated, and no incident report gets filed)," she lamented.

'For altruistic reasons'

Health Secretary Paulyn Ubial in a March 6 press conference said the health department has not received reports of DTTB volunteers backing out of the program following Perlas' death.

"When I went to Batan, Aklan, the parents and the family of Dr Dreyfuss, although they are very, very sad, but you can see that they really have accepted that this is part of what their son has chosen to do," she said, explaining that all DTTB volunteers "are prepared for such eventuality."

Ubial said she doesn't see the "possibility" of doctors in far-flung areas fearing for their lives either because "there are doctors willing to be assigned to those areas for altruistic reasons."

Perlas, who Fariñas said was "well-loved" in the community, worked on improving and modernizing the rural health unit in his area toward PhilHealth accreditation. 

He was also active in medical missions. In fact, he came from a medical mission and was on his way home when he was shot dead. (READ: #JusticeForDrDrey: Medical community honors slain physician)

Perlas was buried on Saturday, March 11, in Aklan. – Rappler.com

Jee Y. Geronimo

Jee is part of Rappler's Central Desk, handling most of the world, science, and environment stories on the site. She enjoys listening to podcasts and K-pop, watching Asian dramas, and running long distances. She hopes to visit Israel someday to retrace the steps of her Savior.

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