Ex-DOH chief Ona says he would not have OK’d dengue vaccine

Camille Elemia
Ex-DOH chief Ona says he would not have OK’d dengue vaccine
Former health chief Enrique Ona denies having a hand in the Dengvaxia issue, but his successor Janette Garin says it was Ona who introduced the idea to former president Benigno Aquino III's attention

MANILA, Philippines – Former Health Secretary Enrique Ona faced the Senate blue ribbon committee for the first time on Monday, January 22, where he slammed the Aquino administration’s implementation of the now-controversial P3.5-billion dengue vaccination program.

The vaccination program is facing scrutiny after the vaccine’s manufacturer Sanofi Pasteur revealed that there are potential health risks in using the Dengvaxia vaccine.

Asked by committee chair Senator Richard Gordon if he would recommend the use of vaccine if he were still DOH chief, Ona said he would not do so citing “red” flags.

“This should have not been implemented the way it was done – meaning, targeting almost a million children – because the basis for the issues that were being raised were still a big question mark,” said Ona.

“Ibig pong sabihin dapat pag-isipan po nang husto kung i-implement po ‘yun.(This means they should have thought hard before implementing it) If I were the Secretary of Health, I would not implement it in that extent,” he said.

Ona was the Aquino administration’s first health chief, in office from June 2010 to December 2014. The program was implemented in 2016, with former president Benigno Aquino III saying it was Ona who introduced it to him.

During the hearing, Ona also reiterated his previously issued statement and blamed his successor Janette Garin for the “major health nightmare.”

Ona also said he did not talk to Garin about the program – something that the latter refuted.

Garin said Ona called her twice in 2014 to attend his meetings with manufacturer Sanofi Pasteur in his office. At the time, she was still an undersecretary. Garin also said Ona even asked her to call for a press conference.

“Lastly your honor, in relation to the dengue vaccine. Sinabi po niya di po kami nagkausap. (He said we did not talk about it). Your honor, I beg to disagree, when I was undersecretary of the Department of Health, two meetings po ‘yun pinatawag ako sa (that I was called to the) office of the Secretary to join him in meeting Sanofi Pasteur,” Garin said.

“I am not saying these are bad meetings. [These are] updates on clinical trials and even Secretary Ona was happy with presentation. Sinabi sakin mag-arrange [ako] ng presscon. (He told me to arrange a presscon). I even had a picture in my phone, I’ll try to look that up and present to this body,” she added.

Garin also said it was Ona who first brought the vaccine matter to former president Aquino’s attention, similar to the former chief executive’s previous statement.

Ang nagdala po sa akin kay Pangulong Aquino para pag-usapan ang bakuna ay si Secretary Ona himself. When he asked me to accompany him, it was initially Usec Gaco binitbitt po ako,” Garin said.

(It was Secretary Ona himself who tagged me along to talk about the vaccine to President Aquino.)

Aquino earlier told the Senate panel that he was made to understand that the vaccine had undergone all the necessary local and international processes to determine its safety and efficacy for mass use.

At the time, Aquino said no one, including his own health secretary, told him about their concerns about the dengue vaccine.

Ona also denied Aquino’s statement that he met with Sanofi officials in China in November 2014 with Ona.

“That is a complete surprise to me. Kung yun ang sinabi niya (if that was what he said), I was not in Beijing on that month and it was only in August 2014 when I was in Beijing. I don’t recall any,” Ona said.

Less than two years later after the launch, Sanofi said Dengvaxia could cause a more severe case of dengue when administered on a person who have not been infected with the virus prior immunization. (READ: Conflict between Garin and FEC emerges in Dengvaxia probe)

DOH Secretary Francisco Duque III suspended the program after the announcement, but not before more than 830,000 school children received the risky vaccine. – Rappler.com

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Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is Rappler's lead reporter for media, disinformation issues, and democracy. She won an ILO award in 2017. She received the prestigious Fulbright-Hubert Humphrey fellowship in 2019, allowing her to further study media and politics in the US. Email camille.elemia@rappler.com