Never let go of Dengvaxia scandal

Published November 14, 2018, 12:05 AM

by Charissa Luci-Atienza & Bernie Cahiles-Magkilat



The shameful, disgraceful, and yes, possibly murderous Dengvaxia scandal should never be forgotten. We owe it to the dead children and their grieving parents to find out exactly why a faulty vaccine was given to 830,000 public school children, and to hold accountable those responsible for this heinous act.

We thus welcome the announcement by the House Committee on Good Government and Public Accountability that it will re-open its investigation into the previous administration’s controversial purchase of P3.5 billion worth of Dengvaxia vaccine. We truly hope the House will be brave in the search for the truth even amid the strong lobbying by those with financial and political interests in the issue.

Dengvaxia was touted as an anti-dengue vaccine. However, dengue was never considered a widespread deadly disease or a leading cause of mortality in the country so it is indeed suspicious why the government then would zero in on dengue.

What’s worse, the vaccine had a major flaw: it can be fatal if given to those who have not had dengue previously. This is because it acts as a primary infection and healthy children who get inoculated get the serious effects of a secondary infection. (A severe or second case of dengue could result in haemorrhagic fever, abdominal bleeding, plasma leakage, and organ failure.)

Why previous health officials took a big risk on the lives of innocent public school children is beyond comprehension. I don’t buy the explanation that there were no warnings about the vaccine — even before April, 2016, when the mass vaccination occurred, there were already various scientific and medical studies advising against the wide-scale adoption of the new dengue vaccine.

Camiguin Rep. Xavier Jesus Romualdo, chairman of the House Committee on Good government and Public Accountability, said the lower House has scheduled the public hearings on November 20 and 21. Last year, the House Committee on Health held its own inquiry but the committee report was not finalized.

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to tie up the loose ends and get a more complete picture of why and how the government procured the vaccines and rolled out the vaccination program, and if offenses were committed by the officials involved in the process, ” Romualdo said.

I hope that the congressman will hold true to his words. A good amount of political courage is needed at this point as those involved in the Dengvaxia acquisition are considered untouchable “sacred cows” in local politics.

One question that the House members can ask the previous health officials is why it purchased the vaccine with undue haste. All the usual government protocols were ignored, including the recommendation of the Formulary Executive Council to limit it to small-scale pilot tests, and to conduct baseline studies on the prevalence and strains of dengue in the targeted areas.

Then Health Secretary Janette Garin allegedly ignored their advice for a slow roll-out and instead targetted the vaccination of 1 million school children in three target areas. The vaccine was also made available to the private sector who had to pay the steep price of P3,000 to P5,000 per shot (three injections were required).

In other countries where Dengvaxia was also made available, they did not launch any mass inoculation programs. Their governments cared for their people too much to make them guinea pigs for a new vaccine.

Indonesia, even though it had the world’s second highest rate of dengue transmissions, decided instead to conduct a large-scale testing of the new vaccine, a process that will take years.

Mexico, which was the first country to give regulatory approval to Dengvaxia, also did not include the vaccine in its public health program despite its high rate of dengue cases.

Unfortunately for us, the previous administration was indifferent towards the public health and safety of its citizens. It ignored the warnings from medical experts and it acted even without a recommendation from the World Health Organization.

The Senate Blue Ribbon Committee in its report early this year said the Dengvaxia program was implemented with “undue haste” by former President Benigno Aquino III, former health secretary Janette Garin, and former budget secretary Florencio Abad.

“Aquino, Garin, Abad. and other officials are primary conspirators and must be held criminally liable . . . and must be prosecuted for all the tragedy, damage and possible deaths resulting from the Dengvaxia mass vaccination program,” Gordon said.

Criminal complaints against the proponents of Dengvaxia have already been filed at the Department of Justice and state prosecutors are finalizing their preliminary investigation into the first batch of complaints, involving the deaths of public school children Aejay Bautista, Angelica Pestilos, Lenard Baldonado, Zandro Colite, Abbie Hedia, Jansyn Bataan, Mark Axel Ebonia, Rey Justin Almagno, Alexander Jaime, Naomi Nimura, Michael Tablate, John Paul Rafael, Clarissa Alcantara, Erico Leabres, Christine Mae de Guzman, Roshaine Cariño, and Christine Joy Asuncion.

DOJ will decide by the end of this month whether there is probable cause to charge former health officials with reckless imprudence resulting in multiple homicides, as well as violations of the Anti-Torture Act and Consumer Act.

Despite its limited budget and manpower, as well as the strong lobbying against them by the pharmaceutical-medical establishment, the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) has been steadfast in helping the families of the victims and pursuing the cases against the former health officials.

The PAO has so far conducted around 100 autopsies of children who reportedly died after being given the Dengvaxia vaccine. According to PAO forensics chief, lawyer and doctor Erwin Erfe, the children autopsied showed evidence of the adverse effects following their inoculation with Dengvaxia.

The second and third batches of complaints from the families of the victims have already been filed with the DOJ.

PAO chief Persida Acosta said they are studying the possibility of upgrading the Dengvaxia complaints to murder, instead of just reckless imprudence resulting in multiple homicides. Said Acosta: “If they know that Dengvaxia kills, this is not only negligence. This is murder.”