Congress 'pressured' Ubial to continue dengue vaccination program

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Former Department of Health (DOH) chief Paulyn Ubial said lawmakers pressed her to continue the dengue vaccination program, which she had long opposed.

Ubial was asked during the Senate probe into the government’s mass use of the Dengvaxia dengue vaccine on Thursday, December 14 why she had continued the now-suspended immunization program under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte.

It was launched in April 2016 by her predecessor Janette Garin under then-president Benigno Aquino III in the National Capital Region (NCR), Central Luzon, and Calabarzon.

According to Ubial, she was very vocal against the proposal to include the dengue vaccine in the national immunization program even while she was Garin’s assistant secretary.

She said before she became DOH chief, 489,003 children have been vaccinated already.

In her statement, Ubial mentioned the Formulary Executive Council (FEC), which warned against the widespread use of Sanofi Pasteur’s Dengvaxia and instead only recommended its “phased” implementation and “staged” procurement. The FEC is a panel of top Filipino experts that determines which drugs the government may procure and use.

“I was very sad to tell the group that I wanted to stick to the first decision of the expert panel that only those who were given the first dose will continue the other doses. After which, we will stop the implementation… look at the data, and decide how to move forward,” said Ubial.

On July 18, 2016, Ubial signed a resolution recommending the deferment of the program, saying the vaccine is not proven safe. She was criticized for this, however, during the budget hearing at the House of Representatives.

“But during the budget hearing, there was a lot of pressure in Congress to expand it to other parts of the country with higher [cases] of dengue, which is Region 7. I didn’t give in to the pressure of Congress. I told them I cannot expand to other areas because the recommendation of the expert panel,” she narrated.

“But I was pushed [and asked], ‘Why can’t you have a 2nd opinion?’” added Ubial.

She then convened a second panel of experts. But by this time, the World Health Organization (WHO) already published its first position on Dengvaxia.

WHO said countries should consider the introduction of the dengue vaccine "only in geographic settings (national or subnational) where epidemiological data indicate a high burden of disease." It also did not recommend the use of the vaccine for children under 9 years of age.

And so on September 28, 2016, Ubial not only gave the go-signal to continue the dengue vaccination program but even expanded it in Cebu. A total of 123,000 Cebuano kids got the risky vaccine.

Ubial’s predecessor Garin is the wife of Iloilo 1st District Representative Oscar Garin Jr. Oscar is the older brother of AAMBIS-OWA and House Deputy Speaker Sharon Garin.

According to Ubial, it was Oscar Garin who had told her to allocate budget to purchase more dengue vaccines so children who got the first and second doses would be able to complete the third and final dose.

The ex-DOH chief also said House Deputy speaker and Cebu 3rd District Representative Gwendolyn Garcia "badgered" her to get her to commit to expanding the vaccination program in Cebu. 

"At the end of that one-hour exchanges of questions and badgering me and trying to make me commit to expand the implenetaiton of the dengue vaccine to region 7, [they told me] that they would defer the budget of the Department of Health if I do not do that," said Ubial. 

She believes her stand against the dengue vaccine's mass use "prejudiced" her confirmation hearings before the Commission on Appointments (CA), which rejected her.

But Garin said her husband was a CA member. She said her husband was actually concerned on the vaccinated children completing all 3 doses of DEngvaxia.

"My point here, your honor, is the document speaks for itself. 'Di po 'yan pressure. 'Di po 'yan pinilit. At wala po kaming kinalaman sa Commission on Appointments," she said.

(My point here, your honor, is the document speaks for itself. That wasn't pressure. She wasn't forced. And we had nothing to do with the Commission on Appointments.)

It was the House committee on health, however, which initiated the first congressional probe into the dengue vaccination program. – Rappler.com

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda writes about politics and women’s rights for Rappler. She covers the House of Representatives and the Office of the Vice President. Got tips? Send her an email at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or shoot her a tweet @maracepeda.

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