[EDITORIAL] #AnimatED: Dengvaxia hysteria: Go back to the core issue

[EDITORIAL] #AnimatED: Dengvaxia hysteria: Go back to the core issue
We should train the spotlight again on past officials who rushed the purchase and rollout of the dengue vaccines

It’s been more than two months since the dengue vaccine controversy broke. Amid congressional hearings on the issue, investigations by executive agencies, complaints filed in court, and the spins of interest groups, it’s easy to lose sight of what set off this public policy maelstrom. 

In late November 2017, the French company Sanofi Pasteur, which manufactured Dengvaxia, released an update on its years-long clinical tests. If the vaccine is given to a child who had not had dengue before, it said, the vaccine would even increase his risk of contracting a more severe type of the mosquito-borne infection. 

The pharma giant released that latest finding more than a year after hundreds of thousands of Filipino children aged 9 and up had received Dengvaxia, in a mass vaccination campaign by the health department under the Aquino government. 

In the war of words, these stories dominate now: 

  • At least 29 of the children who received the vaccine have died. UP-PGH doctors say only 3 could be possibly linked to Dengvaxia, but nothing is conclusive, and more tests are needed. But the Public Attorney’s Office insists on doing its own autopsies on all these dead, while its chief attends gatherings where relatives display the enlarged photos of the victims and light candles while crying they are certain Dengvaxia killed their children. 
  • Some health professionals, in an attempt to arrest parents’ sudden distrust of vaccines in general, are coming to the defense of Sanofi, asking government not to withdraw the vaccines from the market. (READ: Malacañang: Except for Dengvaxia, other vaccines can protect your kids)

While experts debate these two issues, we forget what brought these about was the Aquino government’s seeming rush to enter a deal with Sanofi, pay the multibillion-peso billing, and roll out the massive immunization campaign – skirting rules and taking shortcuts to make it possible. 

In our editorial last December, in time for the resumption of Senate and House probes into the Dengvaxia mess, we already listed questions that these investigations should find answers to. Our point then, which remains so now, was to identify liabilities and make the accountable officials of the Aquino administration and the current one (if warranted) face the consequences. (READ: #AnimatEd: Somebody has to answer for the dengue vaccine disaster

From the hearings conducted by Senator Richard Gordon, we see other red flags:  

  • The Philippine Children’s Medical Center (PCMC) made a purchase request for Dengvaxia on January 21, 2016, even without approval from the Formulary Executive Committee. In 4 days, more than 145,000 doses of Dengvaxia already arrived. 
  • By February 11, 2016, the second batch of doses arrived, yet it was only on February 19 that the memorandum of agreement between the Department of Health (DOH) and the PCMC for this deal was signed. 
  • On March 2, 2016, the budget department issued to the DOH a Notice of Cash Allocation amounting to P4.5 billion. Six days later, only P3 billion was transferred to the PCMC. What explains the difference of P1.5 billion? 

We also gather that:

  • At the time Sanofi was aggressively trying to convince the DOH under then secretary Janette Garin to purchase Dengvaxia, the pharma company was racing against time: there were other dengue vaccines in the US that were in a more advanced stage of trials, and which could have been released commercially ahead of Sanofi.
  • There was no allocation for the Dengvaxia purchase in the 2015 and 2016 budgets, but savings from within the department were realigned to fund the purchase. This practice was very similar to the Disbursement Acceleration Program, parts of which the Supreme Court had already declared unconstitutional. 
  • The dengue immunization program, which was targeted for school children, was rolled out during the summer vacation, when children were not in school. April 2016 was also well within the campaign period, when an election ban on the release of government funds was in place.

Let medical experts debate and resolve the issue of Dengvaxia’s efficacy. Let public health advocates help in allaying the fears of parents toward other kinds of vaccines. 

But let’s also do a special audit of this deal. File cases against past officials who rushed the purchase and rollout of Dengvaxia, and broke rules and laws in the process. The spotlight, the public scrutiny, should train on them again. – Rappler.com 

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