Tuberculosis, still a threat to Filipino children

Published October 5, 2020, 11:51 AM

by Jessica Pag-iwayan

This curable yet deadly disease takes thousands of lives across the globe

For more than six months now, Covid-19 has changed how we are living, in ways we’ve  never anticipated. Everyone, especially parents, are taking extra precautions to protect their family from catching the deadly disease. We shouldn’t forget the fact that Covid-19, however, is not the only disease we should protect ourseves against today. 

Tuberculosis (TB) is a disease caused by bacteria. It usually attacks the lungs. Through the campaign #TBFreePH, the Department of Health (DOH) with the help of the United States Agency International Development (USAID) under TB Innovations and Health Systems Strengthening Project (TB IHSS), is intensifying the advocacy to raise awareness of tuberculosis, including childhood TB. National Children’s Month also falls this month of October. 

Based on the latest report from DOH Integrated TB Information System (ITIS), there have been 90,678 childhood TB cases in the Philippines since 2018. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the full scope of the burden of TB in children is still not fully known. In its annual Global TB Report, WHO estimates that over 1.12 million children fell ill with TB in 2018, with 233,000 deaths. The 2019 WHO report estimates that in the Philippines, “12 percent of the total new and relapse cases of TB (371,688) reported in 2018 were children below 15 years old.” This is roughly 44,600 children.  

For a curable disease, this number is alarming. The cure for Covid-19 pandemic is still unknown. Thankfully, many reports from around the world have shown that cases among children are low, but this is not the same with TB. DOH ITIS estimates that the prevalence of childhood TB among all reported TB cases ranges between 9 to 13 percent from 2018 to 2020, with slightly more boys than girls affected.

How children get infected

Children often catch this disease in close contact with a person with TB. Childhood TB is often called “primary complex.” The child is most likely exposed to an adult with an active TB disease. Mycobacterium tuberculosis is expelled from a person with TB through respiratory droplets when he or she coughs, sneezes, talks, or sings. A child may also inhale the bacteria, commonly through close contact.

What’s more alarming is TB cases among children are hard to detect. Some symptoms are weight loss, low appetite, and swollen lymph nodes in the neck area. Detecting this disease among children is not as easy as detection in adults. According to the US Centers for Disease

Control website, “infants, young children, and immunocompromised children, with latent TB infection or children in close contact with someone with infectious TB disease, require special consideration because they are at increased risk for getting the disease. Consultation with a pediatric TB expert is recommended before treatment begins.”

Depending on the situation, treatment for children may take six to nine months of medication. “It is important to note that if a child stops taking the drugs before completion, the child can become sick again,” the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says. “TB that is resistant to drugs is harder and more expensive to treat, and treatment lasts much longer, up to 18 to 24 months.”

National government and partners coming together

To stop the spread of the disease and to save children from this deadly illness, the national government together with development partners and the private sector rolled out the Philippine Strategic TB Elimination Plan (PhilSTEP) and the #TBFreePH campaign.

On March 16, DOH issued a Department Memo 2020-0126, mandating all public health facilities to continue TB services during the Covid-19 quarantine. At the end of the year, DOH is targeting to start the treatment for 53,119 children.

Meanwhile, USAID provides GeneXpert technology to DOH. Through this, “TB, including drug-resistant TB, can now be detected in just hours instead of weeks, allowing more Filipinos to receive life-saving treatment faster.” The said organization is also among the active partners for multi-year campaign #TBFreePH. (Illustrations by Ariana Maralit)