According to Department of Health (DOH) data, pulmonary-related illnesses were the first, fifth, seventh, and ninth top causes of morbidity in the Philippines in 2022. In fact, acute respiratory tract infections remained the top ailment reported by Filipinos from 2012 to 2022.
Either viral or bacterial, these infections are easily treatable. But when allowed to fester, they can escalate into more serious illnesses such as pneumonia; chronic lower respiratory diseases like chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma; and respiratory tuberculosis. Incidentally, these more serious pulmonary ailments were the sixth, seventh, and tenth leading causes of deaths among Filipinos in 2022.
Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Filipinos are afflicted with lung diseases. This only underscores the importance of improving the capabilities of specialty health centers like the Lung Center of the Philippines (LCP), and ensuring that similar facilities are set up across the country.
We made headway in this regard with the enactment last August of the Regional Specialty Centers Act (RA 11959), which we co-authored. This law designates the DOH to establish specialty centers in its hospitals in every region, prioritizing such specializations as cancer care, cardiovascular care, renal care and kidney transplants, brain and spine care, trauma care, burn care, and lung care.
Another milestone in this regard happened recently. No less than President Bongbong Marcos launched the Lung Transplant Program to be implemented jointly by the LCP and the National Kidney and Transplant Institute (NKTI).
We were fortunate to be present at the event, alongside Batanes Representative Ciriaco Gato, Quezon City Mayor Joy Belmonte, LCP Executive Director Dr. Vincent Balanag, NTKI Executive Director Dr. Rose Marie Rosete-Liquette, and Chairperson of the LCP-NKTI Lung Transplant Program Dr. Edmund Villaroman.
The immediate goal of the program is for the first human lung transplant in the Philippines to take place within the year. Achieving such a medical milestone would bring much hope and optimism not only to LCP’s patients who are waiting for the right donor to be identified, but also to the many other Filipinos afflicted with pulmonary diseases.
Currently, no hospital in the country is equipped or capable of performing the procedure. The only recourse for Filipinos who need the transplant is to try their luck abroad. Even if they have the means to travel and avail themselves of medical services elsewhere, such as in Toronto, Canada, there is no guarantee that they would be accommodated or prioritized. One of the LCP’s doctors even shared how one patient passed away while waiting for a donor abroad.
In truth, efforts to establish a working lung transplant program have long been underway. Arguably, they started in 1974 when then First Lady Imelda Marcos shared with then Minister of Health, Dr. Enrique M. Garcia, her vision of setting up several specialty medical institutions, which included the LCP. The dream gained ground when Presidential Decree No. 1823 creating the LCP was signed by the elder President Marcos in January 1981 and when the center was inaugurated a year later.
Then, in the 1990s, doctors from LCP were sent abroad to train and gain hands-on experience with lung transplants. These efforts may have been derailed by the huge LCP fire in 1998, but they nevertheless resumed, albeit incrementally.
The stars started to align in recent years. As Chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance, we worked so that the LCP would be appropriated under the 2022 national budget up to P20 million for the center to start building up its transplant program, and P25 million for an initiative on the Early Detection of Lung Cancer.
These funds helped the hospital send some of its doctors in 2022 to train and gain exposure at institutions with high volumes of transplants, such as the Medical University of Vienna and Toronto General Hospital. Procurement for the necessary equipment also started. In the same year, the LCP and the NKTI entered into a memorandum of agreement jumpstarting the establishment of the lung transplant program through the development of a lung transplant manual. This manual is meant to help guide both institutions address such challenges as lack of infrastructure, the development of an organ donation and allocation system, and limited access to trained personnel and financial constraints.
The most critical lynchpin, however, was the broad policy guidance that President Bongbong Marcos had laid out as early as his presidential campaign. During many of his sorties, he underscored his promise of ramping up support and funding for the country’s specialty hospitals.
We followed through in this regard by ensuring that in the 2024 budget, up to P130 million is appropriated for the LCP including additional funds to continue implementing the newly launched lung transplant program. This is but one clear example of the good that can be achieved if several sectors collaborate, and get their act together—or in simpler terms, unite under a single cause.
Senator Sonny Angara has been in public service for 19 years—9 years as Representative of the Lone District of Aurora, and 10 as Senator. He has authored, co-authored, and sponsored more than 330 laws. He is currently serving his second term in the Senate.
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