Press Release | 24 July 2021

In line with its commitment to enable and capacitate patients with rare diseases, the Department of Health (DOH), in collaboration with Johnson & Johnson (Philippines), Inc. (J&J) hosted a virtual forum last July 22 to tackle the needs and address the gaps in caring for Filipino patients dealing with inflammatory back pain disease.

With the theme, “Kalusugan at Kaunlaran ng Pilipinong May Kapansanan, Isulong sa Gitna ng Pandemya,” the event tackled the impacts of Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS), a rare form of inflammatory back pain disease that, if left untreated, can pose serious health risks to patients.

Dr. Beverly Ho, director of the DOH Health Promotion Bureau opened the event sharing how the decision to tackle this topic is in line with the DOH’s agenda to improve health literacy, quality of care, and appreciation for primary care in the Philippines.

During the panel discussion, Dr. Bernadette Heizel Manapat-Reyes, Chair of Spondyloarthritis - Special Interest Group of the Philippine Rheumatology Association (PRA) explained that Ankylosing Spondylitis is a type of arthritis that causes chronic inflammation of the spine. Its common symptoms include recurring back pain and stiffness, pain and swelling in other parts of the body – caused by inflammation of the joints (arthritis), enthesitis, and fatigue.

“Understanding that there is no cure for AS and that its effects on a patient can be debilitating for his/her daily life long-term, what we hope to do is catch the disease early among suspect patients – in that, it will allow for us to manage its effects better over time as it progresses,” Dr. Manapat-Reyes said.

J&J Philippines Head of Medical Affairs Dr. Erwin Benedicto, moderator and representative for the global healthcare company shared during the panel, “Although this disease is rare, it is important for us to still be able to support those who suffer from its effects – that those who are living with inflammatory back pain disease or Ankylosing Spondylitis have the capacity to get themselves the right medication and treatment they need.”

Across the globe, J&J has been working together with local government units and medical associations in providing accessible treatment to AS patients through their efforts led by Janssen Pharmaceuticals.

There are currently no local studies that can give a clear indication of the exact number of patients affected by AS in the country. To combat this, the DOH, along with its partners from the PRA, J&J, and ASAPh are encouraging suspect patients to seek early consultation from specialists so that they may establish a referral system among primary care physicians and rheumatologists so these diseases can be addressed as early as possible.

Likewise, all four stakeholders are working towards building a baseline for community awareness and building capacities for patients and medical practitioners.

Speaking as a patient, Dr. Karizza Calibag, shared her personal experience during the forum, wherein she emphasized the importance of having holistic support for patients. This, she says, includes both moral support from family and peers, as well as financial.

“Being in the spectrum of a rare disease, it is also rare that you find someone who will be able to easily understand what you’re going through,” she said. “So when we speak of support, we’re hoping for more than just help that will get us through our treatment, but rather, a sustainable program that will allow us to care for ourselves.