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Under dark skies: Staying mindful of rainy season diseases

Expecting widespread rain showers and scattered thunderstorms, the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) declared last June 12 the start of the rainy season in the country. With the Philippines’ health sector already struggling to cope with the overwhelming number of COVID-19 cases, the onset of the rainy season may also bring with it increased incidence of diseases associated with the season such as typhoid fever, dengue, and leptospirosis.

In an interview with The LaSallian, Biology Department Assistant Professor Dr. Eligio
Maghirang describes these diseases as “the usual burden of the [healthcare] system during this time of the year.”

Under the weather

As heavy rain and strong winds begin to affect the country more frequently, communities must brace themselves not only for the torrential downpour but for other overlooked problems that come with it, including disease.

Leptospirosis, for example, can be contracted when a person whose open wounds come into contact with water, such as in floods, contaminated with bacteria from animal urine; the dengue virus, on the other hand, is carried by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which breed in stagnant waters pooling in buckets and rain gutters. These diseases, and a few others—including respiratory tract infections and gastrointestinal problems—commonly infect people with weakened immune
systems or who live in areas with poor sanitation.

These infections are incredibly pervasive, particularly during the rainy season. In July 2019, the Department of Health (DOH) declared a National Dengue Alert after the country had seen 106,630 cases the first half of that year, 73 percent of which were children. At the time, the death toll was at 456, but rose to over a thousand by year’s end.

For leptospirosis, the year ended with 3,011 cases and 314 deaths. Detecting outbreaks in some parts of Metro Manila, DOH distributed medical equipment to aid hospitals in dealing with the sudden rise in cases.

When asked whether the country should anticipate a significant increase in cases of such diseases in the coming months, Maghirang admits that there is currently insufficient data to make a wholly accurate prediction regarding how the current circumstances may affect disease incidence.

“It’s a multi-pronged problem,” he remarks. Maghirang explains that these diseases are influenced by various factors such as climate change, pollution, and even socioeconomic class, as some low-income areas are unable to afford necessities for health, like hygiene products and medicine. Additionally, quarantine measures have made people less exposed to diseases, but also reduced access to nutritious food, opportunities for healthy habits like exercise, and general health services.

With the COVID-19 pandemic still ongoing, government initiatives that deter the spread of rainy season diseases are continually being carried out. For Dr. Maria Paz Corrales, assistant regional director at the Metro Manila Center for Health Development, raising awareness on disease transmission is important in reducing future cases.

The decline in dengue cases, she points out, was aided by DOH’s 4S Strategy—a program that encourages citizens to search and destroy mosquito breeding sites; self-protect against bites by using insect repellant; seek medical attention early; and support fogging practices to prevent mosquito-borne diseases.

Meanwhile, the distribution of doxycycline, a drug used for treating bacterial infections, has been a successful measure in countering leptospirosis, Corrales notes. “But most of all,” she adds, “cleanliness in the environment is the most important preventive measure for both diseases, coupled with living a healthy lifestyle.”

Right as rain

As hospitals prepare for the constant flood of patients, the public should prepare within their means and avoid becoming patients themselves. According to Maghirang, one should stay healthy through regular exercise, quality sleep, and proper diet; he also emphasizes that “early intervention is very important to prevent the progress of the disease.”

In addition, Corrales puts forward, “Approaches to [the aforementioned] diseases all [point] to the importance of advocating prevention through cleanliness of oneself and the environment.” Attaining this would entail drinking clean water, practicing proper
handwashing, and keeping one’s house and surroundings clean.

These measures are not groundbreaking by any stretch of the imagination, but require both personal and societal efforts to improve individual and community conditions—hygiene, for example, cannot be achieved without a steady supply of clean water, while sanitation would necessitate the implementation of proper waste disposal methods.

“Dati [‘pag may] ubo [o] sipon, itulog mo lang ‘yan. Ngayon, every time [you experience] fever, cough, shortness of breath, [loose bowel movement, or] anything that really bothers you, go seek help agad,” Maghirang advises. Many of these symptoms are shared by a range of different diseases, he notes, which would make accurate and early diagnosis markedly more difficult.

(Before, if you have a cough or a cold, you could just sleep it off.)

Corrales echoes that these “non-specific symptoms” are enough to warrant a hospital visit and a physical check-up, as if “left unnoticed, [these] may progress to a severe illness.”

Where the wind blows

“Dapat mapag-usapan at ‘di makalimutan,” Maghirang says regarding diseases that tend to rise in prevalence during this season.

(We must discuss [the issue] and not neglect it.)

The most important thing to keep in mind is to not lose sight of other serious diseases amid the ongoing pandemic. Being diagnosed with COVID-19 could increase one’s risk of developing other illnesses as it weakens the immune system, and vice versa, Corrales adds. Although, since the environment is a key factor for diseases like leptospirosis and dengue, the risk of infection would still depend on the extent of exposure to possible vectors, like floodwaters or the aforementioned carrier mosquito species.

Maghirang acknowledges the magnitude of the viral disease—its rapid spread throughout the world, its massive impact on multiple industries, and above all, the uncertainty surrounding it—but notes that other diseases must still be given attention to ensure people’s health and well-being.

“You’re not undermining COVID-19 and its effects. What [we are] saying is that it’s a part of the bigger picture,” he clarifies.

The strenuous toll the pandemic has continued to impose on the health sector may mean that even known and common rainy season diseases, if left overlooked, can harmfully impact the lives and well-being of our communities.

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