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CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY — Independent presidential candidate and Senator Grace Poe said here there is no proof that having a long experience as a public servant would make one best qualified for the presidency.

 

”There is no proof that if you have long experience, you are good. I think that among us, I might have the shortest experience but, as a mother, I can see the needs of a family,” Poe said during the first presidential debate held in Cagayan de Oro City.

 

Poe’s first-round critic, Liberal Party (LP) standard-bearer Manuel "Mar" Roxas II, belittled the experience of Poe, saying the country needs “not an OJT (on the job) president.”

 

”How will we be able to know if we are being flattered? For me, experience is the best qualification of a president,” Roxas said.

 

In response, Poe said she investigated in the Senate the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) and Department of Interior and Local Government (DOTC), two government agencies that Roxas handled before announcing his presidential bid.

 

”I think, you do not need long experience to know what is lacking in the government’s assistance for our people and if the assistance is consistent,” Poe said.

 

In her short experience in the government, Poe led the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB) and got the highest number of votes of 20 million to earn a seat in the Senate where she led high-profile investigations and passed important measures, including the Freedom of Information Bill.

 

Under her stewardship, the FOI bill hurdled the Senate but not the House of Representative, prompting her to promise during the televised debate that, if elected, her first executive order will be about FOI.

 

Poe said her experience as a teacher, although belittled by an opponent, would also be helpful for her to become a successful leader of the country.

 

”It is because a teacher has the real concern and teach us what is right or wrong and on what to do on certain topics,” Poe said.

 

”I might be new, but our problems are no longer new and many have long experience but their solutions are all the same,” she said in her closing statement.

 

Poe said she will also push for free student lunch in public schools and subsidies for the poorest farmers.

 

In her opening statement, Poe said the debates are the proper way to inform the public about their candidates and for the people to understand what they can do once elected in May 9 polls.

 

She said there are already experienced politicians who led the country but Mindanao remains poor despite having the best products, particularly pineapple and banana.

 

”What we need is leaders with true compassion, determination, fast action and immediate solutions,” Poe said.

 

If elected, Poe said 30 percent of the national budget should go to Mindanao for the immediate solution to development.

 

She also intends to improve the power supply for Mindanao by rehabilitation the hydro power plants – Angus and Pulangi in Mindanao.

 

On Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte's being a womanizer, Poe said the mayor should "restraint a little bit."

 

”All of us commit mistakes, because we’re just human, but I always give respect whoever you are -- men or women, LGBT. All of us should respect each other,” Poe said.

 

On the poverty and development which turned out as the hottest issue during the presidential debate, Poe promised to use the untouched Php70-billion coco-levy fund to help save the dying coconut industry.

 

”Let’s remember that an average age of coconut tree is six years old. We need replanting. Let’s use the coconut levy fund for our coconut farmers. Create livelihood like coco coir, coco oil, coco water and whatever added value for our farmers,” Poe said.

 

To improve the agriculture sector, Poe pushed for agro-industrial zones wherein the Departments of Trade and Agriculture will jointly market the products of the farmers.

 

”Let’s have soil testing. What is the added value that we can do to their lands? How we can increase their income. Irrigation should be free,” Poe said.

 

On the issue of the South China Sea, Poe agreed with Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago that the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the Philippines and the United States should have been approved by the Senate. The Supreme Court has declared EDCA as legal.

 

Poe said the Philippines should talk with China "constructively but let’s take a leadership role in the ASEAN so that we can follow a particular Code of Conduct that will be followed by the other countries in the ASEAN."

 

On the peace process, Poe said she wanted to have a transparent, inclusive and sustainable talks and agreement with all the groups and sectors – Moro rebels, Maguindanaoan, Tausug, Maranao, Badjao, Indigenous People, and Christians.

 

While talking peace, Poe said all the projects in Mindanao should be implemented, including the long proposal to build the Mindanao Rail project which, she said, would require P70 billion.

 

On Duterte’s federalism proposal, Poe said she is open into it if it would make the country better but she prefers ‘devolution of powers’ wherein local governments have prerogative to spend funds.

 

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CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY — Liberal Party standard bearer Manuel "Mar" Roxas II vowed that he will take concrete steps to modernize the country’s fisheries system if he is elected in the May 9 national polls.

 

Roxas shared his plans during the first Presidential Debate organized by the Commission on Elections (Comelec) in cooperation with GMA News and Public Affairs and the Philippine Daily Inquirer held at the Capitol University in Cagayan de Oro City.

 

He said the first thing he would address would be the reduction of interest rates on loans so fishermen would be able to take home more of their hard-earned cash.

 

“Nauubos ang kanilang capital, ang kanilang kinikita, sa kababayad ng interest at amortisasyon sa kanilang inuutang,” he told thousands of attendees in the first-ever presidential debate in the country.

 

“Hindi pa nga sila nagpapalaot, iniutang na nila ang kanilang huhulihin. Kaya ang murang pautang ang isa sa pinakasusi para sa kanilang kaginhawahan,” he added.

 

Next on Roxas’ agenda is the use of modern tools in fishing to achieve a more efficient harvest.

 

One of the concrete proposals which he introduced and is now being utilized by fishermen in Dagupan City, Pangasinan is the fish finder, which utilizes global positioning satellite (GPS) technology to increase fishermen’s catch, cutting operational costs and increasing their incomes. This was funded by the Aquino Administration’s Bottom-Up Budgeting (BUB) program, he said.

 

“Hindi naaaksaya ang kanilang panahon at pera sa kabibili ng gasolina, derekta sila kung saan 'yung mga isda, nahuhuli nila ito at naibebenta nila ng sariwa pa sa magandang presyo,” Roxas explained.

 

The veteran lawmaker also put emphasis on the construction of post-catch facilities like chillers and refrigerated vans, which would maintain the freshness of the fishermen’s catch.

 

“Post-catch facilities, ito ‘yung mga chiller, ito ‘yung mga packaging na mahalaga para mas mataas ang kikitain nila kumpara sa kinikita nila ngayon,” Roxas said. “Sa ngayon, limitado ang kanilang kita dahil nabubulok ang kanilang isda. ‘Pag nagkaroon ng mga post-catch facilities tulad ng mga chiller, tulad ng mga [refrigerated] vans, dadalhin ang kanilang huli sa mga pamilihan, gaganda ang kanilang kita.”

 

These would be complemented by the implementation of more infrastructure projects so fishermen would be able to bring their harvest to markets, Roxas said.

 

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By JOSEPH G. LARIOSA

 

SIKATUNA AWARD. President Benigno S. Aquino III confers the Order of Sikatuna, with the rank of Grand Cross (Datu) on Philippine Ambassador to the United States Jose L. Cuisia, Jr., on Wednesday, Feb. 17, in Los Angeles, California. Also in photo is Mrs. Maria Victoria J. Cuisia 

 

LOS ANGELES (JGL) — President Benigno S. Aquino III declared here before returning to Manila his administration is building so many schools, hospitals, rural health units, barangay health centers, roads, bridges, ports, airports during the last five years that his local government units have accommodated even projects from the rival opposition parties.

 

In his speech in Filipino on Feb. 17 before the more than 800 members of the Filipino community groups from Los Angeles and southwestern United States, who filled the Ballroom of Hilton LAX in Los Angeles, California, President Aquino said, “Talaga pong sa bawat sulok ng bansa, ang daming itinatayong eskuwelahan, ospital, rural health unit, barangay health center, kalsada, tulay, daungan, paliparan at marami pang iba. Itanong po ninyo sa ating mga LGU, kahit po hindi namin kapartido, wala pong nai-etsapuwera, maliban lang ho iyong talagang ayaw magkaroon ng mga proyektong ito.” (It’s true in every nook and cranny in our country, there are many schools, hospitals, rural health units, barangay health centers, roads, bridges, ports, airports that are being built that our local government units have accommodated even projects from their rival opposition parties.)

 

Mr. Aquino said his administration was able to construct not 66,800 but 185,149 school classrooms. He also said the government was able to provide some 7.7-million very poor individuals with money from the government’s Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) out of  4.4-milion households and hopefully this figure will increase to 4.6-M before he leaves office on June 30, 2016.

 

Reiterating his speech in English at the Los Angeles World Affairs Council a day earlier, Mr. Aquino said when he inherited the CCT program that gives cash grants to poor households, so long as they keep their children in school and have them vaccinated, among other conditions, from his predecessor, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, there were around 790,000 households by mid-2010 when he assumed office but the number jumped to 4.4-million, or an increase of 18%.

 

The 56-year-old Mr. Aquino also hailed the improvements his government introduced both on “the coverage and the efficiency of our Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (f)rom 2010 until 2015,” where more than one million graduates benefited from the Training for Work Scholarship Program."

 

He said the average employment rate or placement rate, which is defined as finding a job six months after graduation, has shot up, from 28.5 percent then among TESDA scholars in 2006 to 2008, to above 70 percent among the 2013 graduates, and even reaching 96 percent in several specific sectors where there was very good cooperation with industry.

 

Mr. Aquino said, “The program is so effective that I constantly hear stories of graduates earning an income that is multiples of my own and with considerably less stress, too. And which I intend to follow after I step down from office.” His remark elicited laughter from the crowd. He added, “I’m reminded of that conditioning.”

 

He also touted another accomplishment of his Administration anchored on the mantra, “Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap.” (If there is no corrupt person, there is no poverty.) As “the universal health insurance (PhilHealth) which covered 51% of the population when he took over in mid-2010. PhilHealth now covers 91%, which is a jump of 46%, for the very poor population that consists of the two quintiles or 40% our population, who can benefit with a free health care from public hospitals thru a zero budgeting program.”

 

On his anti-corruption crusade, the President also took credit for jailing his predecessor former President Arroyo and three “untouchable” Senators (Enrile, Revilla and Estrada), who are facing corruption plunder charges, removal by impeachment of Chief Justice (Renato Corona) for under-declaring his assets at 2%, and the filing of charges against 784 cases against smugglers and tax evaders that could be the crowning glory of his administration he called “Daang Matuwid” (straight path).

 

On foreign affairs, he disclosed that there are at least nine Filipinos working in North Korea, employed by different United Nations Agencies. He said the Philippine Embassy staff posted in Beijing would be responsible for extricating them with the help of different closely-knit organizations in that isolated regime if trouble erupts.

 

Mr. Aquino said also the Philippines has 23 staff in South Korea, who have come up with a plan to take the 50,000 Filipinos working in that country to the southernmost part of South Korea, where they can be evacuated to the Philippines if case trouble breaks out in the peninsula.

 

He urged the overseas Filipinos to help him elect Sec. Mar Roxas and Rep. Leni Robredo as president and vice president on the May 9 elections so they can stay the course of his Daang Matuwid. Mr. Aquino also urged the Filipinos everywhere to unite.

 

In his welcome remarks, Philippine Consul General Leo Herrera-Lim based in Los Angeles presented to the President “our kababayans (Filipino compatriots) who represent the diversity of Filipino presence in southern California, southern Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.”

 

Notwithstanding their diversity, “They are Filipinos sharing a common aspiration for our country, the home of their parents and grandparents,” Consul General Herrera-Lim said.

 

Philippine Ambassador Jose L. Cuisia, Jr. referred to the high level of priority attached by the President and his Administration to the engagement of overseas Filipino communities.

 

President Aquino also conferred the Order of Sikatuna, with the rank of Grand Cross (Datu) to Ambassador Cuisia in recognition of the envoy’s “exemplary accomplishments in working for the advancement of the country’s national interests in its relations with the United States,” in a ceremony during the President’s engagement with the Filipino communities in Los Angeles and southwestern United States on Wednesday, Feb. 17.

 

Accompanying the President at the event were members of his Cabinet, namely: Secretary of Finance Cesar V. Purisima; Secretary of Defense Voltaire T. Gazmin; Secretary of the Cabinet Jose Rene D. Almendras; National Socio-Economic Planning Secretary Emmanuel F. Esguerra; Secretary of the Presidential Communications Operations Office Herminio B. Coloma, Jr.; Secretary Emmanuel M. de Guzman of the Climate Change Commission; and Secretary Julia Abad of the Presidential Management Staff.

 

The Filipino population in the States of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and in southern Nevada and southern California numbers at around 1.13-million. Most of them are professionals in the fields of healthcare, accounting and law enforcement. 
Mr. Aquino attended the first US-ASEAN Summit hosted by President Obama on Monday (Feb. 15) and Tuesday (Feb. 16) and was back in Manila on Friday (Feb. 19). Among the topics discussed at the Summit with 10 other leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are security and economic issues in the region. (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

 

 

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CAMP CRAME, Quezon City — Operatives of the Philippine National Police (PNP) have arrested more than 1,000 persons for violating the election gun ban.

 

Chief Supt. Wilben Mayor, PNP spokesman, said as of 7:41 a.m. Sunday, Feb. 14, 1,004 persons, mostly civilians, have been apprehended for carrying firearms since the implementation of the Commission on Elections' (Comelec) gun ban on January 10.

 

The figures include 965 civilians, seven police officers, 10 government officials, 15 security guards, five employees of a law enforcement agency, and two members of the Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Unit, Mayor said.

 

He added that the PNP confiscated 810 firearms, 9,169 deadly weapons, 43 grenades, nine other explosives, 30 firearm replicas, 277 bladed weapons and 8,810 ammunition.

 

The gun ban is being implemented by the PNP and other law enforcement agencies in line with the country's national and local elections on May 9. It started on January 10 and will last until June 8.

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MANILA — PDP-LABAN standard bearer and Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte vowed to expand make the country's educational system more friendly to the poor once elected as president in the May elections.

 

Duterte proposed to do this by providing free education until high school and expanding subsidies and scholarship grants to college students.

 

“Are we not angry that education costs too much for almost half our population? Do we just allow tuition fees and other charges to rise?” Duterte asked.

 

He also said the real solution is not to rely on available scholarships alone, but to remove the unjust and oppressive price of education through state subsidies or programs to lower costs such as investments in solar power to reduce electricity costs.

 

He also called upon the Commission on Higher Education to continuously study how costs can be lowered rather than justifying increases in tuition fees.

 

The PDP-LABAN bet made this statement after learning of the untimely demise of Jessive Lagatic a fourth year student at Central Bicol State University of Agriculture, who allegedly committed suicide last Feb. 11, after losing his scholarship

 

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MANILA — Independent presidential candidate Senator Grace Poe has maintained second spot while opposition bet Vice President Jejomar Binay remains on top despite 3-percentage point drop in the latest Business World-Social Weather Station survey.

 

In a survey conducted last Feb. 6-7 to the 1,200 respondents, Poe, a frontrunner in latest Pulse Asia survey, garnered 24 percent amid disqualification cases filed against her by the petitioners questioning her citizenship.

 

Binay skidded from 31 percent in January to 29 percent two weeks after the Senate blue ribbon subcommittee wrapped up its inquiry into anomalies involving the Binays, particularly Makati suspended Mayor Junjun Binay.

 

Mayor Rodrigo Duterte was biggest gainer, receiving 4-percentage point increase to jump from fourth to second spot to tie with Poe.

 

Liberal Party standard bearer Mar Roxas also suffered 3-percentage point slide to remain in the third spot while Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago is still at the bottom with only four percent.

 

The survey was conducted three days before the 90-day campaign period officially started last Feb. 9.

In the vice presidential survey, Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” R. Marcos Jr. is now tied at the top spot with Senator Francis Joseph “Chiz” G. Escudero, both at 26 percent.

 

Escudero dropped from 28 last month to 26 percent while Marcos improved from 25 percent to 26 percent.

 

Camarines Sur Rep. Maria Leonor “Leni” G. Robredo is now on third spot with 19% (from 17%), followed by Senator Alan Peter S. Cayetano at fourth with 16% (from 14%).

 

Senator Gregorio “Gringo” B. Honasan II obtained 6% (from 8%), while Senator Antonio F. Trillanes IV had 5% (from 3%).

 

In the senatorial race, the top five leading candidates were still Sen. Vicente C. Sotto III (52% in February from 56% in January), followed by former senator Panfilo M. Lacson (unchanged at 49%), Sen. Ralph G. Recto (unchanged at 46%), former senator and food security presidential assistant Francis N. Pangilinan (42% from 46%) and Senate President Franklin M. Drilon (40% from 43%).

 

Also in the top 10 were former senator Juan Miguel F. Zubiri (38% from 39%), Sen. Sergio D. Osmeña III (37% from 42%), Sarangani Rep. Emmanuel “Manny” D. Pacquiao (35% from 37%), former justice secretary Leila M. de Lima (35% from 33%), and former Akbayan Rep. Ana Theresia “Risa” Hontiveros (27% from 28%).

 

The survey showed a close race for the last two seats, among Sen. Teofisto D.L. Guingona III (26% from 28%), former senator Richard J. Gordon (26% from 31%), Sherwin Gatchalian (23% from 17%) and Joel T. Villanueva (22% from 19%).

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NAGA CITY —Administration standard-bearer Manuel "Mar" Roxas II, who once said he will not promise what he can’t deliver, said he could turn the Philippines into a Singapore-like tiger economy if elected in the coming elections.

 

“We have been branded as the ‘Sick Man of Asia’ before; we became ‘Asia’s Bright Star’ through the administration of President Aquino; and in the coming years, we will be known as ‘Superman of Asia,’” Roxas said here last week.

 

Roxas said there is no reason to doubt the country’s capability to become the next economic rockstar of Asia, noting that all the fundamental foundations have already been laid down through honest and good governance.

 

Asked of how he intends to do it, Roxas said the formula lies on the expansion of the Bottom-Up Budgeting (BUB) which he sees as a good catalyst to achieve more economic development.

 

The camp of presidential candidate Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte immediately branded Roxas' program as the Liberal Party’s tool to win support from the local government officials.

 

“The BUB is like a rocket booster. It will be energized to propel the country to greater heights,” he said.

 

Under the BUB plan, Roxas said he would allocate P100 billion every year for countryside development – the budget, that will depend on the population of each barangay, town and city, will be at P1,000 per person.

 

If a town, for instance, has 50,000 population, it will automatically receive P55 million that will be used to implement projects and programs.

 

What is new with the BUB is that it is the people who will decide on the kinds of projects and programs that they would want to implement, he explained. That is a paradigm shift from the usual policy of the national government where the governor, congressman or mayor dictate what project will be implemented, he said.

 

The BUB will be the centerpiece of my economic program for the poorest of the poor,” said Roxas.

 

Earlier, President Aquino told barangay officials that the BUB, set up in 2013, has allocated P74.06 billion to 54,000 approved BUB projects.

 

Roxas pointed out that such a policy is surely a safeguard to corruption since more sectors will be tapped for monitoring and assessment of budget spending.

 

“We can say that our progress is not only based on statistics, not only on GDP [gross domestic product], not only on per capita, not only on economists point of view. We can declare that progress was felt by all the 42,000 barangays throughout the country,” he said.

 

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QUEZON CITY ― The general manager and top officials of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) are facing plunder and graft charges before the Office of the Ombudsman in connection with the alleged anomalous operation of the small-town-lottery (STL).

 

Named respondents in a case filed by the Citizen’s Crime Watch (CCW) were PCSO general manager Jose Ferdinand Rojas II, assistant general manager Remeliza Gatbuyo and board members Francisco Manuel Joaquin III, Mabel Mamba and Betty Nantes.

 

Also facing plunder charges are 18 small town lottery (STL) operators for alleged failure to declare their actual sales.

 

The operators facing charges are the Batangas Enhanced Technology, CTG Prime Ventures, Diamond Gaming, First Golden Fortune, GIPC Gaming, Golden Matrix Gaming, Iloilo Small Town Lottery, Lake Tahoe Gaming, Lucky Pick Amusement, Northrails Resources, Ocenania Sur Gaming, Ramloid Gaming, Piroutte Corporation, Randomchoice Gaming, Royal Viva Research, Suncove Corporation, Sunset Marketing Corporation and Super Luck.

 

“Bukod  sa paggamit ng ilang loterya bilang kublihan ng iligal na jueteng ay dinadaya pa ng mga nagpapatakbo nito ang deklarasyon ng kanilang benta na ikinalugi ng gobyerno ng mahigit P100 bilyon kada taon,” said   Magpantay in his complaint before the Ombudsman.

 

Magpantay said his complaint was based on a National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) report which bared the use of ‘papelitos’ or ‘lastillas’ or small strips of paper, instead of the point-of-sale terminals (POST), a handheld gadget to record bets and transmit the record to the central data center, and ‘kubrador’ of bets which is prohibited under the guidelines in the implementation of the STL.

 

“Sa kanilang paggamit ng papelitos sa halip na mobile ‘point-of-sale terminals,’ o POST, na siyang itinakda ng PCSO ay sinadyang itago ng mga operator ng loterya ang kanilang totoong benta na tinatayang aabot sa mahigit isangdaan-bilyong piso kada taon,” said Magpantay 

 

The group said the PCSO executives allowed the STL to continue despite a report of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) showing the government is losing P50 billion from its operation.

 

The NBI report said the losses were due to under-declaration of income by STL operators.

 

The CCW said the PCSO officials conspired with STL operators to make the small-town-lottery a front for an illegal numbers game.

 

CCW chief Diego Magpantay said the conspiracy was prejudicial to the government.

 

“With the failure of the STL operation to eradicate the illegal numbers game and taking into account the NBI report, the PCSO or the government stands to lose at least P50 billion a year in revenues with the continuous operation of STL,” the complaint read.

 

Rojas is confident the plunder case against him and other agency officials will be dismissed for lack of merit.

 

“We at the PCSO board have introduced and put in place since 2010 reforms in the agency. These include different gaming activities like the STL,” he said.

 

Rojas said the governance commission for government-owned and controlled corporation has been monitoring the performance of the PCSO board.

 

He said the case was meant to malign the board by people with vested interests.

 
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MANILA — Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino (PMP) presidential candidate Romel Mendoza has officially withdrawn from theMay 9, 2016 national elections reportedly to support Vice President Jejomar Binay.

 

Mendoza filed his statement of cancellation/withdrawal before the Commission on Elections (Comelec) Law Department on Feb. 1.

 

“After much thought, I am hereby cancelling my Certificate of Candidacy (CoC) for President, Republic of the Philippines…or I am hereby withdrawing my candidacy for the position of President,” said the document, which was signed by the nominee of PMP, the party founded and headed by Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada.

 

Mendoza said that he only filed his CoC for president last October to provide an avenue for Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada to run for president via substitution in case the latter changed his mind.

 

Estrada is seeking reelection as mayor in Manila.

 

Comelec Chairman Juan Andres Bautista noted that substituted is no longer allowed at this time since the deadline has already elapsed.

 

“December 10 was our deadline for the filing of substitution for withdrawals,” he added.

 

Comelec Resolution No. 9984 states that no substitution due to withdrawal shall be allowed after Dec. 10, 2015.

 

As this developed, Bautista noted there is a need for Congress to revisit the law on allowing substitution of candidates.

 

He cited the case of Mendoza, who admitted that the reason he filed his CoC for president was to provide Estrada the option to become a substitute candidate.

 

“Probably, for the succeeding elections, we may need to assess this provision of the law and we call on our Congress to look into whether we should still allow substitution of candidates,” the poll body chief said.

 

With Mendoza out of the race, the possible candidates for the top post in the land is down to six and they are: Liberal Party (LP) standard-bearer Manuel "Mar" Roxas; Vice President Jejomar Binay of the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA); Senator Grace Poe (Independent); People’s Reform Party’s (PRP) bet Senator Miriam Defender Santiago; PDP-Laban’s Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte; and OFW Family Club Party-list Rep. Roy Señeres of the Partido ng Mangagawa at Magsasaka Workers and Peasants Party (WPPPMM).

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MANILA — President Aquino has directed the Department of Health (DOH) to be on alert as Zika virus spreads in the Americas and in Asia and the Pacific prompting the World Health Organization (WHO) to call for an emergency meeting among countries affected.

 

At press time, the DOH is not yet imposing travel restrictions to countries where Zika virus cases have been reported and is also not considering any plan for monitoring arriving passengers in the airports and seaports to check if they are sick or infected with the virus.

 

This as Zika virus, a close cousin of dengue and chikungunya, is spreading "explosively" in the Americas, and could spread even further afield amid an "extremely high" level of alarm, according to a senior official of the World Health Organization (WHO).

 

Margaret Chan, WHO director-general, made the statement while briefing WHO's board members in Geneva on the Zika situation, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

 

Chan said that Zika cases have been reported in 23 countries and territories in the region.

 

Symptoms of Zika virus, which is spread to people through mosquito bites, include low-grade fever, joint pain, rash, conjunctivitis, headache, muscle pain and eye pain.

 

"Chan explained that a causal relationship between the virus infection, and birth malformations and neurological syndromes has not yet been established, but is strongly suspected," Dujarric said. "And the possible links, only recently suspected, have rapidly changed the risk profile of Zika, from a mild threat to one of alarming proportions."

 

"WHO is deeply concerned about the rapidly evolving situation for four main reasons -- the possible association with birth malformations and neurological syndromes; the potential for further international spread; the lack of population immunity in newly affected areas; and the absence of vaccines, specific treatments, and rapid diagnostic tests," Dujarric said.

 

"Conditions associated with this year's El Nino weather pattern are also expected to increase mosquito populations greatly in many areas," the spokesman said.

 

Chan convened an International Health Regulations Emergency Committee on the virus and observed increase in neurological disorders and neonatal malformations on February 1 in Geneva to ascertain whether the outbreak constitutes a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, he said.

 

Australia and Pacific island countries are on high alert for the mosquito-borne Zika virus that has been linked to severe birth defects.

 

Following WHO decision to convene an emergency committee on the Zika virus situation, unit chief for International Health Regulations epidemic alert and response Sylvain Aldighieri said: "We expect huge numbers of infections, some detected and others undetected."

 

"There is great deal that remains unknown about the Zika virus, but the reports and suspected links to birth defects and neurological problems mean that this threat must be taken very seriously," said Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister Peter O'Neill in a statement.

 

Australian authorities have implemented measures to help stop the spread of the virus through the Torres Strait with monitoring in the nation's remote north already underway.

 

"We'll monitor closely through the Torres Strait. We already do that with a number of infectious diseases," Queensland state health minister Cameron Dick said.

 

Dick said the Zika virus does not pose a significant health risk to Queensland "at this time ... but we're going to continue to monitor that."

 

Zika carrying mosquitoes are endemic to tropical and sub-tropical environments.

 

There are currently no reported cases of Zika in Australia.

 

Though the World Health Organisation (WHO) is convening an emergency meeting in Geneva to determine its response to the spread of the virus, vaccine manufacturers have said a vaccine for wide-scale public use is months, if not years away.

 

Current efforts to combat Zika are focused on protecting people from being bitten and on eradicating mosquitoes, a tough task for many parts of the poverty stricken Pacific islands that have been saving water from the El Nino enforced drought, inadvertently providing a breeding ground for the disease spreading insect.

 

Based on dengue epidemiology in the Americas and the over 2 million cases which are reported in the region every year, Aldighieri estimated that there could be "between 3 and 4 million cases of Zika infections in the Americas."

 

"With respect to China and Asia, at this moment we don't have any official notification of Zika virus in that area," he said, adding he did not know what would be the required timeframe, or indeed the feasibility, of developing a vaccine.

 

Zika is transmitted primarily by Aedes mosquitoes, which also transmit chikungunya and dengue viruses and which are present in every country of the Americas except Canada and continental Chile.

 

It is strongly suspected of causing birth malformations. Thus, women in Brazil, Colombia and El Salvador have been advised against getting pregnant during the outbreak.

 

Zika virus was first isolated from a monkey in the Zika forest in Uganda in 1947.

 

“We have no travel restrictions,” said DOH Spokesperson Dr. Lyndon Lee Suy.

 

Dr. Suy explained that it is not feasible to implement the same kind of measures that the DOH utilized during the threats of emerging infectious diseases such as Ebola virus diseases (EVD) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome-Corona Virus (MERS-CoV) wherein they gave travel advisories and monitored arriving passengers through the thermal scanners at the airports.

 

He said that imposing such measures is not feasible because they do not want to create the wrong impression of fear that may cause confusion which they are trying to avoid.

 

He said it is also not proper to suspect any arriving passengers with symptoms similar to that of Zika virus infection and will be placed in quarantine sites.

 

He added that while they recognize the need to be on alert against the disease, the public must be made aware that the means of acquiring or transmission of the Zika virus is very much different from EVD and MERSCoV and other infectious diseases.

 

Dr. Lee Suy stressed that the transmission of infectious diseases such as EVD and MERSCoV is through people-to-people contact while Zika virus can be transmitted by bites of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus.

 

The DOH spokesperson added that what should be given much attention is the “potential source/s” of Zika virus which is also present in the country -- the aedes mosquito which should be stopped from growing in numbers.

 

Aedes mosquitoes are also the same mosquitoes that can cause dengue hemorrhagic fever.

 

The Health official said that what should be strengthened at this point in time is the people’s participation in cleanliness activities that will help stop the breeding or growing of the number of aedes mosquitoes that can possibly transmit and become carriers of the Zika virus.

 

He reiterated that the best preparation still is boosting of awareness on cleanliness and ensuring that stagnant water is properly covered so that the mosquitoes will not be able to lay their eggs there.

 

He also said that helping in destroying the breeding sites can help a lot in reducing the risk of the threat of Zika virus, dengue and even chikungunya infections.

 

He also said that there is a need for people to know and realize that they need to help in bringing down the population of mosquitoes which have the tendency to bite when they are “hungry for blood” and do not select the next target or victim to bite -- man, woman, old and young, pregnant woman or not, etc.

 

For pregnant women, he reminded that while the DOH is not imposing any travel restrictions, it is best for them to consider the welfare of the baby in their wombs and wisely decide on their own to definitely avoid going to places where Zika virus are reported to be spreading.

 

“If you're pregnant, as much as possible, think twice before you get to travel… Kailangan ba, urgent ba na pumunta ka sa lugar na may ganitong problema?” he added.

 

The Health spokesperson said that in case traveling or going to destinations where Zika virus cases are reported is unavoidable, pregnant women taking the risk should ensure that they have adequate protection from the bites of mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus.

 

He said that wearing long pants and long sleeves are good options.

 

He explained that the Zika virus effects to humans are relatively mild infections (similar to manifestations of influenza) such as mild fever, joint pains, rashes, and conjunctivitis.

 

“Kung titingnan natin ay parang trangkasong-trangkaso ang dating,” he added.

 

He also clarified that dengue manifestations are more severe than the Zika virus.

 

In terms of mortality, Dr. Lee Suy said it is not life- threatening.

 

“Kung life threatening ito? It’s not life threatening… Very rare do we hear of patient dying because of Zika,” he added.

 

He said that what makes the Zika virus something to be feared about is the possibility of Zika virus to cause microcephaly, a congenital defect where a baby has an abnormally small head and incomplete development of brain.

 

Dr. Lee Suy explained that while there were some studies done connecting microcephaly to Zika virus, it is not likely that all pregnant women will have babies born with microcephaly.

 

“It is not 100 percent… Only possibility because there is no clear evidence yet in terms of linking the Zika virus to microcephaly,” he added.

 

At present, there is still no vaccine treatment for Zika virus, which is a close cousin of dengue and chikungunya.

 

The first case of Zika virus infection in the country was in 2012 wherein a male individual was reported to have been infected with a Zika virus-carrying mosquito.

 

Since then, no additional case has been reported in the country.

 

At present, Zika virus is spreading through Latin America and the Caribbean countries.

 

The infection is being linked to thousands of the birth defect microcephaly in Brazil. 


The situation since has drastically changed. In 2015, the mosquito-borne virus was detected in the Americas with Brazil reporting its first case in May last year.

 

Zika infections have now been reported in 23 countries and territories in the region.

 

"We must use dengue dynamics as our reference point. Where you had a dengue outbreak in previous years and the mosquito aedes aegypti is still present, you have a risk of zika transmission," Aldighieri highlighted.

 

According to data, only around one in four infected individuals develop symptoms which include fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis.

 

"Most of the cases don't present many clinical signs. 75 percent of patients infected by the virus will not develop any clear symptoms, or not enough to go to the clinic and see a doctor," Aldighieri said.

 

Experts strongly suspect two main factors have driven the virus' progress in the Americas according to WHO, which also explained that though a causal relationship between Zika virus infection and birth defects including babies being born with abnormally small heads and other neurological syndromes has not been established.

 

"First, the population is totally naive in terms of immunology against this virus. The second point is that the vector is everywhere in the Americas, from southern United States to northern Argentina," Aldighieri said.

 

WHO Assistant Director-General Bruce Aylward warned that though the Zika virus is currently circulating at a very high intensity in the region, gaps remain regarding the situation on the ground.

 

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