President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. wants the Department of Health (DOH) to place a higher priority on the fight against infections caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and tuberculosis, in addition to the fight against COVID-19.

Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), a chronic and potentially fatal condition, is caused by HIV in its advanced stages.

“Let’s start refocusing again on the general public health concerns. Siyempre COVID has not come away. [We] still have to deal with it but let’s not deal with COVID to the… at the expense of all these other public health concerns,” President Marcos said in a meeting with DOH officials Tuesday in Malacanang.

During the meeting, the President asked DOH Officer-in-Charge Maria Rosario Vergeire about the agency’s TB-DOTS program aimed at eradicating tuberculosis in the country.

Vergeire told the President that the DOH has become more innovative and is now going around the country to launch the primary care program that includes TB-DOTS.

According to Vergeire, tuberculosis has reemerged because of its high transmissibility, and the disease usually affects people from the lower income bracket of society.

The health official also said there are a lot of multi-drug resistant cases of TB because people can still buy anti-TB medicines over the counter.

“So, for example, they have prescriptions that will be given by doctors who just need them… medicines for just one, two months, they will not finish their medicines and they become resistant,” Vergeire said, adding some patients receiving medicines from the government offer them to other people who haven’t consulted a doctor.

The DOH has to intensify its surveillance and monitoring, the DOH-OIC said, as the agency loses TB patients because of internal migration.

To address present challenges, Vergeire said the DOH has partnered with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) after it donated a tool using artificial intelligence.

“So mag-X-ray ka dito for example ‘yung province A, will just be sent to an app on the phone in minutes you get your chest x-ray reading to artificial intelligence and right away you subject the patient to sputum examination, and in three to four hours they start your medication,” Vergeire said.

“So we’re trying to go around the different provinces to do this. Hopefully, we get to reduce the number of cases,” she added.

With regard to HIV, Vergeire said the DOH gained headway prior to COVID-19 but encountered hurdles during the pandemic because of state-imposed curbs.

Cases rose during the pandemic as a result of the restrictions, which prevented people from undergoing HIV screenings, she said.

“People were not able to go for screening, were not able to get their medicines because of the lockdown, so what we did during the time of pandemic, we were already sending per individual or per patient ‘yung kanilang mga gamot through LBC para lang makainom sila ng gamot,” Vergeire said.

The health official also said the DOH is working with lawmakers and with the judiciary to fight stigma and discrimination, which have been preventing people from seeking medical attention even if they’re experiencing HIV symptoms.

“So we’re working with the other sectors so that we can be able to make the services more accessible,” Vergeire said.