'Bad science, wrong info' root of Dengvaxia problem – health experts

MANILA, Philippines – Health experts said the root cause of the dengue vaccine problem is “bad science,” saying former president Benigno Aquino III could not be blamed if he was fed the wrong information.

Antonio Dans, an epidemiologist at the Philippine General Hospital (PGH), said the warning that there could be negative effects on patients with no previous dengue flu was “initially ignored” and was only recognized later on.

“In my own opinion, the whole problem started with bad science. In our opinion, that’s the root of the problem. And that bad science, there were already signals of harm in seronegative patients. And it was ignored initially and it led to the delayed recognition of that harm. And then we were led to patients who were uninformed,” said Dans, also a scientist at the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST).

“It's an issue whtether patients had previous dengue that signal was ignored The WHO [World Health Organization] was a victim of that bad science. The DOH [Department of Health] was a victim of bad science,” he added.

Senator Francis Pangilinan then asked Dans if he meant that bad science, which was “put together by scientists and not politicians,” won the debate in the scientific community.

Dans answered in the affirmative and suggested that the Food and Drug Administration be removed from DOH supervision for legitimate checks and balances.

“Because there was no adequate policy between politics and science… The FDA should not be under the Department of Health and should be a separate institution independent of the DOH,” he said.

Dr Anthony Leachon, a health reform advocate and independent director at the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth), said Aquino could not be blamed for being fed the wrong information arising from “bad science.”

“If the bad science or wrong information has been fed to the president, how can you blame the president if the president was fed with bad science or wrong info? Or even the WHO or even [former health] secretary [Janette] Garin? The problem is that when the matter was brought to president, he thought there was sense of urgency,” Leachon said.

“So you cannot mix your science and your health with politics, but it all started with deceptive or wrong information sir,” he added.

Err in the side of caution

Senate blue ribbon committee chair Richard Gordon then cited the case of Singapore where they only advised the use of the dengue vaccine for private use. He said the Philippines, unlike its neighbor, immediately conducted mass vaccination program.

Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said had there been no mass vaccination or a clear doctor-patient relationship, monitoring would have been easier.

Duque said he would rather be conservative and choose to side with caution.

“if this is used with a physician-patient relationship, monitoring may be clear and the surveillance is better because it’s more perosnal… In other words natutukan mo (you got too focus on patients),” he said.

“I've always subscribed to this principle: to err on the side of caution. Magkamali man ako basta ang pagkakamali ko nasa panig ng kaligtasan (Even if you make a mistake, you're on the safe side). I would have been more conservative,” he added. 

Aquino, who faced the Senate probe on Thursday, said no one advised him against Dengvaxia.

It was under his administration when then-DOH chief Garin launched the program in the said 3 regions in April 2016, despite public health experts warning that the implementation was “too” rushed.

The Formulary Executive Council, the panel of top Filiipino doctors, lawyers, and economists tasked to identify the drugs the government can use and buy, never recommended the mass use Dengvaxia. (READ: Mass use of dengue vaccine had no backing of DOH medical experts)

The FEC only recommended a “localized” implementation and a “staged” procurement, because studies at the time have not proven Dengvaxia was completely safe to use and cost-effective for the government. – Rappler.com

Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is Rappler's lead reporter for media, disinformation, 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

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