By CIMI SUCHONTAN
“Pfizer believes it can significantly alleviate the problems facing the country’s overstretched health services,” said Luksanawan Thangpaiboolm head of its vaccine unit in Thailand and Indochina.
“Ageing and obesity are placing greater stress on the health system, which suffers annual shortfalls. It will hurt the economy as productivity falls as more sick leave is taken,” she noted.
Obese children face a host of ailments quite different from their parents, Luksanawan. Ageing citizens will likely not receive the care they need as the budget is not structured to meet new threats.
Even the Bt129 billion set aside last year for the Public Health Ministry’s budget, failed to cover the requested Bt142 billion sought.
Worse, the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI), a respected think tank, warned that in 15 years the ministry would need Bt1.4 trillion, which it will not be able to raise.
The TDRI gave a worst-case scenario where billings top Bt1.8 trillion as the country’s elderly now live longer and require more medicines and care. At best, the ministry can only cover a third of that cost.
“We recognise this problem and do not blame officials for deliberating hard before purchasing new drugs,” said Dr Nirutti Pradubyati, a medical director at Pfizer. “They have constraints to expand new vaccines in the national immunisation programme.
The cost of vaccines is about Bt1.3 billion per year, a small fraction of the budget. Some 40 per cent of the budget goes to pay for the universal healthcare scheme known as the Bt30-a-visit plan created in 2002 for the uninsured and poor.
Luksanawan noted most of the vaccines in the state-funded vaccine scheme are aimed at infants and mothers, not the elderly and other adults who are prone to suffer sicknesses that can cripple or kill.
“There has been a big demographic shift that planners need to address before it is too late,” she said.
Pfizer has new breakthrough vaccines for pneumococcal disease caused by Streptococcus bacteria. The disease brings on pneumonia in infants and the elderly, often fatal,
Luksanawan says the vaccine is available at hospitals but not reimbursable.
“Another vaccine for meningitis is recommended for people travelling to undeveloped areas and on pilgrimages like the Haj. Meningitis is brought on by unsanitary conditions and overcrowding and can be fatal,” she said.
For the moment they are viewed as second priority and are unlikely to make the national immunisation plan yet. These diseases will affect far more people now and in the future, she warned.
“Today one in five people are 60 years old or over. The number of elderly will rise so such infections rise with it. The number of cases and the cost of treating them will escalate alarmingly.”
“A pneumonia shot costs about Bt2,000, cheaper than millions of baht to treat each serious case,” she observed.
“In the medical field, doctors realise prevention is far better than cure,” she said. “We need to review the problems with this solution in mind and not be confused by purely bringing down cost alone.”
Dr Nirrutti agrees. “There are so many new trends in Thailand and the shortcomings of urban lifestyle that will harm health,” he said. “The scope has to be expanded but we are still using old scenarios such as reducing mortality rates and old scourges.”
“A third of the population today live in cities and urban children have become addicted to smartphones, Internet and fast foods. They live a life of inactivity which is bad,” he noted.
“A recent survey showed Thais spend 12 hours on smartphones. “This can be crippling,” he noted.”New problems arising are obesity.
“When confined indoors and lacking exercise, these children and young adults become excessively overweight and suffer many ailments such as diabetes, heart diseases and deteriorating physiology.
“Because they do not go outside much, their bones will wither without sunlight to produce Vitamin D, vital to strong bones.”
The body replaces bone every 7 years and without sunlight, such children can develop skeletal deformity, Pfizer experts noted.
One other aspect often overlooked is the rise in mental health illnesses in the digital age where depression and lack of sleep brig on stress an sometimes suicidal tendencies, they observed.