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Dr. Nelia Cortes-Maramba, M.D.
TOFIL Awardee for Medicine, 2004
Dr. Nelia Cortes-Maramba, through her over 40 years of professional work, has defined the complexion of clinical pharmacology and toxicology in the Philippines.
Indeed, at a time when women were expected to be wives and mothers rather than movers and shakers of society, Dr. Maramba proved to be a rarity. She graduated from the University of the Philippines in 1960 with a Doctor of Medicine degree. Immediately afterwards, she went to the US to undertake further studies in Pediatrics at three institutions: the Children’s Hospital, Louisville; the University of Kansas Medical Center; and the Medical College of Georgia, where she was also trained in Pediatric Therapeutics and Toxicology.
Upon her return as a Diplomate in Pediatrics, she immersed herself in improving healthcare delivery in the country. This passion — which remains bright even today — is behind her immense contributions in alternative medicine, poison control and information services network, and prevention of drug abuse.
A founding member of the National Integrated Research Program on Medicinal Plants (NIRPROMP), she set out to verify the curative properties of plants. NIRPROMP is a multi-agency, multi-disciplinary program established in 1977 to provide direction to and promote herbal medicine use. One of those initially tested was the Vitex negundo, L. — also known as lagundi. In the first phase of the experiment, conducted from January to December 1979, she established lagundi tablet’s cough suppressing ability. Initial results, replicated over the years through more clinical trials confirmed that lagundi effectively relieved cough just like other conventional, yet higher priced medicines.
The NIRPROMP’S success, thus, enabled Filipino consumers to buy cheaper alternatives, such as the lagundi tablet and syrup for asthma, cough and bronchitis. Dr. Maramba’s research on other plants eventually opened the doors to the production of other herbal medicines: sambong tablets for diuresis and urolithiasis, tsaang gubat tablets for abdominal colic and spasm, yerba buena tablets for mild to moderate body pain, and, akapulko lotion for skin diseases.
These landmark studies became one of the basis of contemporary herbal medicine use. Dr. Maramba herself penned books that are now considered reference materials. Among these are the Manwal sa Paggamit ng Halamang Gamot (1980) and its English counterpart, Guidebook on the Proper Use of Medicinal Plants (1982), both collaborative works with other researchers.
Her peers acknowledged the value of her studies to the scientific community and to the Filipino public. She was given the Lifetime Achievement Award in Medical Research by the National Research Council of the Philippines in 1992. The Department of Science and Technology, on the other hand, conferred Dr. Maramba the Tuklas Award (Most Promising Utility Model) for the Akapulko Lotion for Dermal Fungal Infection in 1996.
Dr. Maramba’s experiments,likewise, have enabled local pharmaceutical companies to set a foothold in the local market. Pascual Laboratories, for instance, is producing lagundi and sambong tablets and will soon release the akapulko lotion. These initiatives have bagged the company two citations at the Salon International des Inventions at Geneva in 1997.
Dr. Maramba went into poison control work when she became an active faculty member of the UP College of Medicine (UPCM)-Philippine General Hospital (PGH) right after her training in the US. One of her projects was the formation of a poison control center at the emergency room complex of PGH in 1975. With her signature zeal, she single-handedly trained resident physicians from the Department of Family Medicine to handle poisoning cases.
In 1991, Dr. Maramba led the establishment of the National Poison Control and Information Service (originally the Poison Control and Information Service Network) whose goal was to immediately detect and treat acute poisoning cases throughout the country. With NPCIS staff and the Department of Health (DOH), Maramba visited communities all over the Philippines whose exposure to hazardous chemicals put them at risk.
Few people can claim to have gone the distance in pursuit of their passion. Traversing muddy tracks to reach secluded rural areas, for instance, requires stamina and grit even from youngster. Yet Dr. Maramba, although already in her 50’s at that time, gamely trekked the mountains of Diwalwal, Davao del Norte and trudged through the rough roads of Paracale, Bicol to check the health of gold miners and their families. She had spoken with and assessed the wellbeing of workers from banana plantations, fireworks factories and battery recycling plants.
As a result, Dr. Maramba and NPCIS’s initiatives advanced the state of toxicology in the country. Training increased the number of healthcare professionals who can competently handle poisoning cases. The creation of information materials, bedside toxicology tests and availability of antidotes dramatically reduced mortality rates. At the grassroots level, people became more aware and responsive about health hazards of environmental pollutants and toxic exposures. At the national level, NPCIS studies influenced the formulation and revision of government policies.
Another area where Dr. Maramba has actively worked in is drug abuse prevention and rehabilitation. She contributed in the policy formation of the Dangerous Drugs Board on the use of prohibited substances. In the international arena, she was a member of the World Health Organization (WHO) Advisory Panel on Drug Dependence and Alcohol Problems from 1987-2002.
Dr. Maramba was the first Filipino to be elected to the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) of the UN’s Economic and Social Council. The INCB is an independent quasi-judicial international body tasked to monitor the compliance of Governments with the provisions of international drug control treaties. At INCB, Dr. Maramba participated in missions from 1997 to 2001 to Netherlands, Japan, Germany, Korea, Switzerland, Thailand and Egypt. Also, from1997 to 2002, she served as Vice President and Chair of the Standing Committee on Estimates.
In the academe, she is a respected and well-loved educator. She was Professor XII and was Chair of the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at UPCM. She has written or contributed to 56 books, manuals, monographs and other publications that are now used as reference materials.
Dr. Maramba’s lifelong interest in healthcare improvement is reflected by her active participation in various local and international organizations related to research, pharmacology, toxicology, drug dependence and medical curricula. She has held posts in 40 services and advisory panels prior to her retirement from government service in 2002.
For her myriad achievements to the Filipino community, Dr. Maramba has received 19 awards since 1974. Notable among these are the Lingkod Bayan Award (Civil Service Commission and the Office of the President of the Republic, 1988), 100 Outstanding Women of the Philippines (1999), Most Outstanding Teacher (UP Manila, 1999), Special Award in Pediatric Pharmacology, Toxicology and Medicinal Plants (Phil. Pediatric Society, 1999), Outstanding Health Research Award (Biomedical Research Category, NPCIS, 1996) and Outstanding Individual Award in the Prevention and Control of Drug Abuse (Dangerous Drug Board, 1994).
More than raising the bar for better healthcare in the Philippines, another legacy of Dr. Maramba to the scientific community is her generosity. In all of her research work, her openness is absolute, inviting others to share in her findings. She has made it a point to have an “understudy” in every project, so that the fire of interest, knowledge and skills would not end with her. As a result, “second generation” leaders are running most of the programs she started or has helped put up. For instance, in herbal medicine, she headed NIRPROMP’S training of 37 doctors in the management of medicinal plant formulations.
Such generosity of spirit is characteristic of Dr. Maramba’s fervent faith in God which she imbibed from her parents. In fact, she would always say that everything we have is a gift from God, and all that we can do is to be grateful.
With all her accomplishments, Dr. Maramba still considers her greatest achievement to be her being the loving wife of Dr. Tomas P. Maramba, Jr., a pathologist and former Undersecretary of Health (1987-1992). Also mother to 3 accomplished professionals (Tomas III, a chemical engineer, Inocencio an M.D. and M.S. in Medical Informatics and Cecilia another physician-pharmacologist and M.S. in Infectious Diseases) and doting “lola” to Miggy, Zoe, Drew and Angela.
At the age of 69 wherein most men are in their retirement years, Dr. Maramba remains deeply involved in contributing to the community. She is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology of the U.P. College of Medicine, consultant in the U.P. National Poison Control and Information Service and the PGH Poison Control and Information Unit, and program coordinator of the NIRPROMP.
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