Garin tries to block Atienza’s speech on Dengvaxia, tetanus vaccines

CLASH. Iloilo 1st District Representative Janette Garin interpellates Buhay Representative Lito Atienza on October 1, 2019.

Screenshot from the House of Representatives YouTube account

Things got heated in the House of Representatives when Iloilo 1st District Representative Janette Garin tried to bar Buhay Representative Lito Atienza from completing his privilege speech involving the Dengvaxia controversy and the tetanus vaccine. 

On Tuesday, October 1, Atienza said he wanted to deliver his speech to clear his name after he felt a certain congresswoman – whom he did not name yet – accused him of “sowing fake news” in the House.  

The congressman was alluding to Garin’s interpellation of Bagong Henerasyon Representative Bernadette Herrera Dy on Monday, September 30. Dy had delivered a speech about the importance of vaccination, given the return of polio to the Philippines. During this exchange, Garin said “fake news” about the effects of vaccines eventually led to lower immunization rates in the country.

On Tuesday, Atienza then argued that parents are afraid to vaccinate their kids because of two things: the Tetanus Toxoid vaccine that, he claims, is an abortifacient (this is false) and the aftermath of the Dengvaxia mess. (READ: A year after Dengvaxia: Immunization drops, measles outbreaks soar)

Atienza went on to say that the now-suspended dengue vaccination program that made use of Dengvaxia was allegedly rushed by the Aquino administration in time for the 2016 elections. Garin was the Department of Health (DOH) secretary at this time.

“Now, the lady who stood up yesterday branded my information that I was carrying  into this chamber as nothing but fake news. That is unfair. Coming from a member of Congress, she should have respected my opinion as I would have respected her. But since she branded it as fake news, I’m wiling to prove this in any forum,” said Atienza.  

“If she is able to prove that I have infected this chamber with fake news, I’m willing to be prosecuted and willing to risk my position. But if I’m able to prove in that debate that I’m [correct] – I’m inviting her to join me – she has to answer for the Dengvaxia deaths and the dengue deaths!” said an impassioned Atienza. 

It was at this point when Garin raised a point of order, cutting Atienza’s speech short. 

She questioned why the Buhay congressman was being allowed to speak, when privilege speeches are often delivered on Mondays. 

Deputy Majority Leader Juan Pablo Bondoc then said Atienza’s speech is in order, because Section 102 of the House rules states every lawmaker gets 10 minutes to “raise a question of personal or collective privilege speech” as long as he or she is able to secure permission from the House committee on rules, which oversees plenary proceedings.

This was not enough for Garin, who tried other means to stop Atienza from finishing his speech.

Some 837,000 Filipino gradeschoolers were already vaccinated before Sanofi Pasteur announced in November 2017 that Dengviaxia might lead a person to get severe dengue if he or she had not been infected by the virus before immunization.

In the aftermath of the Dengvaxia scandal, immunization rates across the country decreased. It led to outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases like measles and polio.

Garin, ex-president Benigno Aquino III, and other former government officials have since faced multiple complaints filed against them in relation to the Dengvaxia mess.

The standoff

After initially cutting off Atienza’s speech on Tuesday, Garin questioned the presence of a quorum in the plenary and moved for a roll call to be called.

When a House member questions the quorum, the attendance of legislators has to be checked by the secretariat. 

“Mister Speaker, with the answer of the Majority [Floor] Leader, allow me to enlighten him that our rules say that no matter can be discussed without quorum. I therefore move to call the roll,” said Garin.

Deputy Speaker Michael Romero, who was presiding over the session, immediately suspended the session.

Atienza then spoke up, and began saying, “We can call the roll a million times…”

But this struck a chord with Garin, who then tried to make a motion ordering the House secretary-general to remove Atienza from the plenary hall. 

“Mister Speaker, may I request the secretary-general to bring the honorable colleague out of this floor? We are not in session and he keeps on talking,” said the visibly irked legislator. 

Garin’s motion, however, was not acted upon by the plenary. When the session resumed, the roll call was called and 209 lawmakers were recorded as present.  

But Garin still did not give up. She continued questioning why the plenary was allowing Atienza to speak. Bondoc simply repeated the provisions of Section 102 of the House rules. 

“Debate will never be curtailed in the House of Representatives,” Bondoc told Garin. 

Session was again suspended for 16 minutes. Bondoc and other legislators were then seen in a huddle with Garin. 

The interpellation

When session was resumed, Garin was finally able to interpellate Atienza. 

The medical doctor-turned-congresswoman then dedicated much of the exchange correcting Atienza’s false claim that the tetanus vaccine is an abortaficient. But she also addressed Atienza’s criticisms on the Dengvaxia vaccine.

“The challenge for me to resign, if indeed Dengvaxia causes deaths, surely, Mister Speaker, I welcome and accept that. I've been saying that several times: dengue vaccines do not cause deaths,” said Garin. 

 “Vaccination is not just our children’s obligation. It is the right of every people. It is an obligation of our government,” she added. 

At the end of their exchange, Atienza still took a swipe at Garin.

“I will leave the rostrum with one message. There are 3 things that cannot be hidden: The moon, the sun, and the truth,” said Atienza. 

The DOH has not yet confirmed whether Dengvaxia caused any deaths. But the DOH has already banned the vaccine in the country after the controversy erupted. – Rappler.com

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda writes about politics and women’s rights for Rappler. She covers the Senate 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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