PASIG CITY, PHILLIPINES— The day after Typhoon Ondoy hit, the medical students at the Ateneo de Manila School of Medicine immediately began relief efforts— surprisingly close to home. After taking down the class roster, the school immediately began searching for the 100 missing friends and classmates that had not shown up that day.
“It was really the students that got together to start texting and calling everyone they knew to try and figure out where their classmates were,” said Dr. Mikey Vergara, a Professor at the Medical School. “They found the last student four days later, wearing the same clothes he was wearing the day the typhoon hit.”
I sat down with Dr. Vergara on October 19, three weeks after the typhoon actually hit. In addition to being the best man at my parents’ wedding and now the personal doctor of my grandfather, Dr. Vergara has been regarded as an outstanding member of the Philippine medical community because of his extensive community service work in poorer, rural areas which have extremely limited access to proper health care. Having grown up in a more fortunate and affluent family, Dr. Vergara branched out in a way that many of his colleagues would not have by helping the less fortunate in remote areas of the Philippines. Even with his recent return to the capital city, he has continued his work, and has become a very beloved professor at the Medical School. During our interview, students were continually coming up to him to give him updates on medical missions, ask questions, and just chat about their lives.
Hearing about my two-week trip home and the goals I was trying to achieve, Dr. Vergara was incredibly enthusiastic about my efforts and was among the first to sit down with me to share what information he could. Throughout the trip, he continued to help me in providing medical information that I could share with student leaders I spoke with at various universities who were also intent on helping in relief efforts. Dr. Vergara, who served as a National Director in the Philippine Department of Health in the early 1990s, when he was heavily involved in the establishment of the Disaster Management Unit, was quick to step up and help students figure out what they could do to help, given the medical knowledge they had acquired so far.
“The students have been so active—in fact many of the victims themselves were among the first to volunteer,” he said. “But, in my opinion, the fact that we have to rely on disaster relief is a failure of the government’s institutions. We should be involved in disaster management before the fact, not disaster relief after.”
Dr. Vergara pointed out that only 2.4% of the Philippine national budget is allotted to the Department of Health, despite the fact that the World Health Organization recommends 5-6%. The government reaction to Typhoon Ondoy demonstrated its shortsightedness when it came to disaster preparedness. Many people had drowned during the storm because only about 30 rescue boats purchased for such situations were able to get to the affected areas. Dr. Vergara noted that when he was in government, they had purchased 300 boats, and this was only about a decade ago. One might assume that a government facing increasing incidence of natural disasters, such as the disastrous Typhoon Milenyo that hit in 2007, would have increased their budget for emergency vehicles such as boats. Rather than positioning the boats in disaster-prone areas, they had been placed in one area, so that they were stranded when the storm hit.
Dealing with seriously affected areas, Dr. Vergara led a seminar with students, to help them establish what it was that they could realistically do. On medical missions, first-year students mostly conducted psychosocial consulting for traumatized victims, while others became involved in diagnosing and directing various patients to the physicians who could give them help.
Even Dr. Vergara and his students, however, quickly discovered the dangers such medical missions truly presented. Victims were not only suffering from the flash floods and landslides that immediately killed hundreds of people. When we spoke on October 19, Dr. Vergara said that the death count caused by the bacterial disease leptospirosis had risen to 96—which doesn’t even account for the undiagnosed deaths that have likely occurred in the poorer areas. The incidence of this disease has become especially prevalent in lowland areas, where water from the sewers have risen to the surface. The bacterial disease, spread by rat urine, affects people through breaks in the skin, and takes about 10-14 days before its fatal symptoms begin to show.
In addition to the increased incidence of leptospirosis, victims and even relief workers have to protect themselves from dengue, a mosquito-born disease that becomes prevalent during the rainy season, and even more so in stagnant waters. While only two of the four strains of dengue are actually fatal, the incidence of dengue doubled in 2008 from the year before. The fatal strains act quickly, and Dr. Vergara explained that volunteers on medical missions must be extremely vigilant in watching for those strains, as well as H1N1. In addition, volunteers themselves must take preventative measures to protect themselves from contracting these diseases themselves.
In addition to their medical efforts, the very active student body is trying to help victims and people living in the most affected areas through awareness education, by creating pamphlets about drinking clean water, treating fungal and bacterial infection, and spotting serious illnesses.