FEATURE: Young Filipino doctor to the barrio becomes first Southeast Asian on the ‘120 Under 40’ list

Twenty-seven year old Dr. Marvin Masalunga is in the United States for a series of training and orientation on Reproductive Health.

Masalunga is one of the recipients of the 120 Under 40 Campaign of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Bill and Melinda Gates Institute. This project recognizes persons who champion the cause of reproductive health. A native of Cavite, Masalunga, whose nomination was initiated and recommended by the Forum for Family Planning and Development, is the only Southeast Asian individual to receive the citation. He joins nine other selected awardees in a string of talks on ways to improve maternal and child care among locals of their respective countries.

Masalunga will discuss about the state of reproductive health in the Philippines in Baltimore, Maryland. The next sessions will take place in Washington D.C, and New York where talks on the use of contraceptives, and the future of reproductive health will take place respectively.

When asked about how he feels with the recognition, he says "it's a validation of what I, and our group of rural health workers in Palawan, do for the people. Aside from that, it speaks that I am probably doing something right in my service."

The Challenge of medical work in Palawan

Masalunga works in the district hospital of Coron, Palawan as a deputy municipal health officer. In his work, he meets and treats local patients day in and day out.

The latest figures show that among all the provinces in the Mimaropa region, Palawan has one of the highest maternal mortality rate (MMR) - or the number of women dying due to pregnancy and childbirth complications.

Records from the Provincial Health Office reveal that Palawan's MMR rose to 182 in 2014 from 125 MMR per 100,000 live births in 2012.

While the municipality of Coron is one of the popular tourist spots in Northern Palawan with its pristine waters and captivating landscapes, little do most people know about the plethora of health issues that beset its locals, especially the women and the youth.

Coron has a total land area of 689.1 square kilometers - making it bigger than Metro Manila (which is at 613.9 square kilometers.). Coron is made up, mostly of coastal villages. And out of its 23 barangays, seven are flourishing, while the rest are far-flung and underdeveloped.

"Some areas don't even have electricity and access to health facilities. Tara, the farthest barangay, can be reached from Coron via a three-hour boat ride." Masalunga shared.

He further talked about a couple from Tara, whose statements on hoping to improve their life's conditions struck him. Masalunga shared the story of a 23-year-old pregnant mother who was very compliant with her monthly checkups and procedures. But when she was about to give birth, she still found it difficult to get the baby out of her womb. After this experience, she said: 'I would not have undergone a difficult delivery if only I've been aware of the things I need to do.' To this, her husband remarked: 'It's so difficult to become impoverished. We don't have enough access to health care."

Other reproductive health issues

Teenage pregnancies, aside from risky and complicated ones, are also health issues that need to be addressed in Coron. According to Masalunga, "one out of ten pregnant women in the municipality are teenagers."

Culture may be one of the factors for this increasing rate. The young doctor cites the story of indigenous peoples - those who come from the Tagbanua ethnic group, in particular believe that any woman who gets her first menstrual period is free to marry and have children, regardless of age.

The Tagbanua people have what they call the 'kasal sa banig.' In this ceremony (that's symbolic of marriage), the man will have to pin a woman down, and lock her by the ankle. After this, the latter is left with little choice but to marry the man.

Addressing RH issues

Aside from regular medical assistance, Masalunga, together with his team of rural health workers in Coron carry out talks on the importance of reproductive health and family planning. Just last year, they helped organized the 'Buntis Congress' that gathered expectant mothers together for discussions, and counseling as well as provision of free health services such as laboratory, pre-natal checkup, and ultrasound.

Masalunga also led talks among the youth, especially to members of the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program of the Department of Social Welfare and Development.

Through these proactive efforts, Coron's medical team is seeing improvements in providing maternal and child care among locals. According to Masalunga, "80% of our woman now give birth in the hospital, and are assisted by a health care provider and a midwife. This is a good number because we are really pushing for facility-based delivery services, and not just in the home, where the lackof medical resources puts the mother and the child's life on the line."

The 120 Under 40 Campaign

It was during one of the RH orientations that Masalunga met several members of the Forum for Family Planning and Development.

Masalunga further explained "In my involvement with the rural health community, I brought along with me three causes that are close to my heart - the disabled people, reproductive health, and mental health. To re-echo the voice of Vice President Leni Robredo, these are the people who are at the laylayan (the outskirts of society). And they are the ones who need medical attention, the most."

In talks about pushing for the full implementation of reproductive health, Masalunga says we are facing a huge battle in the form of religious and cultural beliefs.

Masalunga asserts that reproductive health is not just about promoting the use of contraceptives, nor does it recommend abortion. Rather, it emphasizes the need for couples to space births and plan for their family - as doing so means planning for the future of their children.

Masalunga's future plans

This young doctor's work in Coron is about to end in October. After this, he plans to take up Pathology as specialization as he further pursues his medical career.

With the experience he has gained out of working in a far-flung area, plus the recognition that allowed him to go places and develop a global perspective on the state of reproductive health, he can confidently embark on a project that will allow him to push for his advocacies a notch higher.

He reveals his plan for next year, that is to come up with an adolescent forum (in partnership with different groups). This activity will aim to empower the youth to know more about their reproductive health rights, and how they can take care of themselves better.

Source: Philippine Information Agency

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