No need to panic over Dengvaxia-linked deaths – Duque, UP-PGH experts

MANILA, Philippines – Health Secretary Francisco Duque III and medical experts from the University of the Philippines-Philippine General Hospital (UP-PGH) on Tuesday, February 6, allayed public fears involving the controversial Dengvaxia vaccine.

UP-PGH expert panel head Juliet Sio-Aguilar said at the Senate hearing on the Dengvaxia controversy not all reported deaths allegedly due to the dengue vaccine are true.

Responding to the question of Senator Joseph Victor Ejercito, Aguilar said there is no reason to panic amid the alleged deaths of children who were vaccinated by Dengvaxia.

“Di naman ho. Kasi po sa dami nang nabakunahan ng Dengvaxia, talagang meron na normal diseases na mangayayari with or without Dengvaxia," she said.

(There's no reason [to panic]. Because of the number of those who were vaccinated with Dengvaxia, there are really normal diseases that would happen with or without Dengvaxia.)

“Ang kailangaan ipahiwatig ay ang dengue infection ay 'di mangyayari kung 'di makakagat ng lamok. Kaya importante ang ating paligid lilinisin natin, 'wag lalagyan ng bagay na puwedeng breeding places ng dengue,” she added.

(What should be conveyed is that dengue infection will not happen if you don't get bitten by an [infected] mosquito. So it's important to clean our surroundings, don't leave out items that can become breeding places of dengue.)

Dr Mary Ann Lansang shared the same sentiment and said the reported deaths are not yet proven to be caused by the vaccine.

“Hindi rin po, hindi pa natin nakukuha 'yung final result from the dengue investigative task force kung talagang dahil sa severe dengue na-enhance or napalubha ng Dengvaxia or natural wild type na dengue ito. Meron ho maliit na risk na baka na-enhance… but we can address that ho by very prompt health [care],” Lansang said.

(We have not received the final result from the dengue investigative task force if Dengvaxia enhanced or worsened the severe dengue, or it was caused by a natural wild type of dengue. There is a small risk that it might have been enhanced...but we can address that with very prompt health [care].)

Lansang said if a person has high fever, he or she should be immediately be brought to an expert doctor.

She also said clinical trials show that Dengvaxia is “generally safe,” saying a majority of school-age children are "seropositive" or have been afflicted with dengue.

Lansang pointed out, however, that the problem is the almost 30% with no prior infection, following Sanofi's advisory that these vaccinees are at risk of contracting severe dengue. But should there be side effects, she said these could be addressed through immediate medical attention.

“Wala pong basis mag-panic po ngayon. Ang advice po namin based on our calculations doon sa mga results from the clinical trials, in general, safe ho kasi marami sa mga kababayan natin at that age would be seropositive. Ang problema natin 10% to 20% or maybe 30% na seronegative,” Lansang said.

(There's no basis to panic now. Out advice, based on our calucations on the results from the clinical trials, in general, it is safe because many of our countrymen at that are with be seropositive. The problem is with the 10% to 20% or maybe 30% who are seronegative.)

Fear of vaccines might lead to future epidemic?

Ejercito lamented the unnecessary level of hysteria about the vaccine, especially anong non-expert groups.

Citing reports he received, the senator said parents were rejecting the administration of proven vaccines for measles, polio, and diphtheria to their children.

“The hysteria is not helping at all. My worry is this would be a problem in the next few years. Baka magkaroon ng epidemic, diseases, 'pag di matuloy maibalik ang tiwala ng publiko sa (There might be an epidemic, diseases, if we can't restore public trust in the) immunization program,” Ejercito said.

Duque said he received similar reports, especially in Region 3.

The health chief also lamented efforts to fan hysteria over the Dengvaxia issue, and appealed to groups “occasionally seen on TV” to stop sowing fear. Duque did not name the organizations but the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) has so far refused to cooperate with them.

“So this is very important, I appeal to everyone especially those whom we occasionaly see on TV. Certainly, there's an effort to create this hysteria, this fear, if not panic, among parents of children. We do understand, of course, the sentiment of parents. But I think it is important for the Senate, Congress, DOH, other agencies to have a unified stand,” Duque said.

Duque said he met with Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II to officially transmit the findings of the UP-PGH panel.

“I told him this can provide very valuable data to help complement other groups. He told me, 'Have it investigated by NBI experts this time.' They are informed by Secretary Aguirre. They do have real experts,” Duque said.

The UP-PGH panel found that 3 of the 14 deaths being linked to Dengvaxia have causal relation, meaning they died of dengue despite being vaccinated. Two of the 3 deaths may have been due to vaccine failure, while most of the deaths were caused by other illnesses. 

The UP-PGH findings, which are still subject to further validation, are in contrast to the alarming pronouncements of the PAO, which saw a bleeding pattern in the autopsies it conducted on the 14 children.

A group of doctors, including former health secretary Esperanza Cabral, urged the DOJ to stop the PAO from conducting autopsies on the children who supposedly died due to Dengvaxia.

The Senate blue ribbon committee is set to summon PAO chief Persida Acosta and Forensic Laboratory Director Erwin Erfe to the next hearing. – 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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