By Karen Lema
MANILA (Reuters) – Allies of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte played down concern about his health on Monday after the firebrand leader announced he is suffering from a chronic neuromuscular disorder.
Duterte on the weekend told members of the Filipino community in Russia, where he was on a working visit, that he has a rare autoimmune neuromuscular disease that is causing one of his eyelids to droop, the latest ailment he has suffered.
“He has localised ocular myasthenia. He had been worked up on this and it has not progressed, it remained localised,” said a close Duterte aide, Senator Christopher “Bong” Go.
The president has had the condition for a long time, Go told Reuters, although Duterte’s spokesman, Salvador Panelo, told a news conference he only became aware of Duterte’s disorder after he mentioned it on Saturday.
“Nothing serious,” Go said, adding the president was “conscious of his health”.
Duterte, 74, has retained much of the domestic support that swept him to power in a 2016 election, even though he has faced considerable international criticism, especially for a crackdown on drugs in which thousands of people have been killed.
He is known for a busy schedule and for giving long speeches, often several a day, and for working well into the night.
Duterte has been open about his illnesses and once quipped that he might not be around until the end of his six-year term in 2022.
Several disappearances from public view in the past have fuelled speculation about his health but the government has repeatedly dismissed any suggestion of a problem.
Panelo said he did not think that the president’s latest illness was serious, adding it didn’t get in the way of his “punishing schedule” in Russia.
“I’m even amazed how he was able to survive this Russian trip,” Panelo said in an interview with ANC news channel.
There is no cure for myasthenia gravis, which causes muscle weakness, but treatment can help relieve symptoms.
Dr Jose Paciano Reyes, a fellow at the Philippine Neurological Association, said if a person had ocular myasthenia for more than two years, the chances were that the weakness and fatigue would not spread to the other muscle groups.
Duterte was the oldest person to be elected president in the Philippines since World War Two.
The Constitution provides for the public to be told of the state of health of a president, if serious.
If a sitting president dies, is permanently disabled or removed through impeachment, the vice-president serves the remainder of a six-year, single term.
Vice-President Leni Robredo, a leader of the opposition, was elected separately in 2016.
Duterte’s known ailments include back problems, migraines due to nerve damage after a motorcycle accident and Barrett’s oesophagus, which affects his throat. He also suffers from Buerger’s disease, caused by heavy smoking in his younger days.
Duterte is known for an unorthodox work schedule that typically starts in the mid-afternoon and can go on well beyond midnight.
(Reporting by Karen Lema; Editing by Robert Birsel)