Just one day after Sanofi Pasteur issued a health warning to its own product Dengvaxia, some people blamed the past president, Benigno Aquino III, for the botched dengue vaccination program. One critic alleged that Aquino is now responsible for an impending massacre of 700,000 students who have been inoculated with the vaccine.
The reason for blaming Aquino is he had approved the commercial sale of Dengvaxia on Dec. 22, 2015 after meeting with representatives from Sanofi Pasteur that same month. Then, in January 2016, Aquino approved the use of Dengvaxia to immunize one million 9-year-old public school students in the National Capital Region, Central Luzon, and Calabarzon.
A reading of the timeline of the dengue vaccination program by Rappler, however, shows that the program was under the Aquino administration for seven months, starting from December 22, 2015 until June 30, 2016 when Aquino’s term ended. Then the program was continued – despite criticisms from health experts – by the administration of Rodrigo Duterte for 16 months, starting July 2016 up to November 29, 2017, when Sanofi Pasteur issued the warning.
When I shared this report in Facebook in response to a meme that blames Aquino, an acquaintance complained that he couldn’t see the logic of 7-16. His view was that Aquino was clearly to blame because he started the program. Duterte only inherited it.
I replied that we have a constitution, a democracy, and chief justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, an Aquino appointee. These three are inherited by Duterte. He didn’t create them at all. But Duterte is trying to change them. He has issued statements that he wanted to revise the constitution and establish federalism or create a revolutionary government. He has also told Sereno to resign. He appointed Dr. Paulyn Jean B. Rosell-Ubial as head of the Department of Health (DOH), replacing another Aquino appointee, Dr. Janette Garin. So, why didn’t Duterte stop the dengue vaccination program that was started by Aquino? Why didn’t he listen to its critics?
[Update: The Supreme Court voted to remove Sereno on May 11, 2018.]
On July 18, 2016, just two weeks on the Duterte presidency, Ubial “signed a resolution recommending the deferment of the program, saying the vaccine is not proven safe.” And it was not just Ubial who had the same concern. “Dr Anthony Leachon, a member of the dengue experts panel of the DOH tasked to evaluate Dengvaxia, says they had recommended in July to temporarily halt the program. He says this was so the DOH could properly validate reports that two people allegedly died due to the vaccine.”
Strangely, however, on September 28, 2016, Ubial issued “a Certificate of Exemption for Dengvaxia so it could still be used despite her earlier flagging of certain issues.”
Why did Ubial change her mind and why didn’t Duterte stop her?
[Update: Ubial pressured to continue Dengvaxia vaccination.]
We have no explanation about this event so far, but we know that some people in the health community were still opposed to the dengue vaccination program. To quote Rappler:
- “October 5, 2016 – Quezon 4th District Representative Angelina Tan files House Resolution No. 444 calling for a probe into the DOH's school-based immunization program for the dengue vaccine. Tan is chairperson of the House committee on health.
"DOH officials tell lawmakers during the plenary deliberations for the 2017 budget that they plan to expand the vaccination program to Central Visayas.
- “October 17, 2016 – Nueva Ecija 1st District Representative Estrellita Suansing files House Resolution No. 480 seeking an inquiry into the P3.5-billion contract to purchase Dengvaxia from Sanofi as well as the safety and efficacy of the vaccine.”
So, even before Sanofi Pasteur issued a warning, officials of the current administration had expressed doubts and had called for an investigation of the dengue vaccination program. And during this time, no Duterte blogger that I know had expressed support of these calls. No blogger had complained. No blogger, minor or major, had told the authorities to stop the vaccination – not Mocha Uson, not Sass Ragando Sasot, not Rey Joseph Nieto. Only now are they fuming mad.
Let me be clear that I’m not pointing fingers. Aquino and Duterte took an oath to uphold the constitution, which guarantees health services. It’s fair to believe they are both honestly concerned about public health and safety. There is a need to investigate the dengue vaccination program, yes. But to say at this point that Abnoy alone is responsible for an impending massacre is rather hasty, careless and inaccurate.