MANILA, Philippines – Surrounded by his Cabinet appointees and longtime friends, former president Benigno Aquino III hit individuals who, "whether qualified or not," had politicized the debate on the dengue immunization program that his administration implemented in the summer of 2016.
Both chambers of Congress have been looking into the possible rush in the process by which the Dengvaxia vaccine manufactured by French firm Sanofi Pasteur was purchased by the Aquino government and used in a P3.5-billion program during the presidential campaign period.
The dengue mass immunization program has been the subject of scrutiny after Sanofi admitted that its product could pose greater risk to those who received the vaccine but had not been previously infected by the virus. The reveal came in November 2017 after a 6-year-long study on the new vaccine.
At a joint House panel hearing on Monday, February 26, Aquino particularly criticized a "noisy" person, whose "certification is seemingly just a notch above the diplomas for sale over at Recto." It was a barely-veiled reference to Public Attorney's Office (PAO) forensics head Erwin Erfe, who conducted autopsies on Dengvaxia recipients who later died.
Doctors from the Philippine General Hospital (PGH) had said 3 of the 14 children who died after getting Dengvaxia shots showed signs of having died of dengue, but that further tests had to be done on their tissue samples. (READ: 'Stop PAO autopsies on suspected Dengvaxia victims')
"Alam na po nating pinasukan na ang isyung ito ng politika. Mainam sigurong ipaalala ko, na ang bawat opisyal ng pamahalaan, elected man o appointed, ay may Oath of Office," said Aquino, as he criticized officials who had been "spreading fear, speculation, and doubt" amid concerns over the safety of the vaccine.
(I know this issue has been politicized. It might be good to remind that every public official, whether appointed or elected, has an Oath of Office.)
Aquino cited Article II, Section 5, of the Constitution, which states that it's the job of officials to maintain "peace and order, the protection of life, liberty, and property, and promotion of the general welfare are essential for the enjoyment by all the people of the blessings of democracy."
Health experts have long called for calm as parents express alarm over the vaccine. Following the Dengvaxia issue, incumbent health officials have reported a sharp drop in the number of children availing themselves of immunization programs for other diseases around the country.
Aquino was accompanied on Monday by his tax chief Kim Henares, peace adviser Ging Deles, and social welfare secretary Dinky Soliman. Former budget secretary Florencio Abad, who was also invited to the hearing, arrived a few minutes before Aquino.
In his opening statement, Aquino explained that it was the rise in dengue cases, already endemic in the Philippines, that pushed his administration to look for alternatives to the usual "indiscriminate fogging" to get rid of mosquitos in barangays (villages).
When he spoke before the Senate in December 2017, Aquino had defended the rush in the dengue vaccination program.
"Noong 2014, nasabihan tayong halos handa na ang bakunang matagal na nating inaasahan. Inulit ito sa atin nung 2015 at pinaalala sa ating dumaan na ito sa iba't ibang proseso at pagsusuri para matiyak ang bisa at kaligtasan nito, sa iba't ibang panig ng mundo. Dumaan na rin ang bakuna sa iba't ibang proseso natin, tulad ng approval ng ating FDA at iba pang ahensya ng gobyerno," said Aquino.
(In 2014, we were told that the long-awaited [dengue] vaccine was just about to be ready. This was repeated to us in 2015 and we were reminded that it had already gone through different processes and studies to make sure it's effective and safe, from different parts of the world. The vaccine also went through our own processes, including approval from the Food and Drug Administration and other government agencies.)
Aquino criticized the apparent misplaced "doubts" over the vaccine. Citing the pronouncements of Sanofi and the World Health Organization, Aquino said the pharmaceutical's definition of "severe dengue" falls under the two lowest grades of the WHO.
"Lahat po ng nagpapaduda, kung 'di man tahasang sinasabi, tila mungkahi ay kapag nabakunahan ka, diretso ka na sa Grades 3 at 4," said Aquino, referring to the WHO's grading of dengue severity. (Those who sow doubt either explicitly or implicitly said that if you're vaccinated, you go straight to Grades 3 and 4.)
The WHO grades dengue hemorrhagic fever into 4 grades, with Grade 4 defined as those who experience "profound shock with undetectable blood pressure or pulse."
Aquino called on those opinions of experts to take precedence, a message echoed by Garin in her own opening speech at the House hearing on Monday.
"Let us continue probes by the [National Bureau of Investigation], the [Department of Justice], and the [Department of Health]. The DOH should be on top of the situation. The public should be listening to them," said Garin, who now faces a case filed by the PAO over the Dengvaxia program.
Ironically, when Garin was health secretary, she apparently put more weight on the opinions of health societies over experts from the health department.