IS President Rodrigo Duterte beginning to realize the enormity of the problems caused by the last-minute push of his predecessor to implement a massive immunization campaign against dengue? It would seem that way.
In a meeting with select newspaper columnists Tuesday night in Malacañang, Duterte gave a rare public statement on the Dengvaxia controversy that seemed to favor the position of Public Attorney’s Office chief Persida Acosta. Acosta and her team of forensic investigators have for weeks now been conducting autopsies on children who reportedly died after being injected with the controversial anti-dengue vaccine, starting in the first half of 2016, when then President Noynoy Aquino embarked on his immunization campaign.
Duterte said he would “trust [his]officials” who are continuing to investigate the implementation of the P3.5-billion Dengvaxia program, clearly signaling that he was still in support of the Department of Health. The department has come under heavy scrutiny in the past months, ever since French vaccine-maker Sanofi-Pasteur revealed in late November last year that its patented product may cause severe dengue in injected children who have never had the disease before.
However, Duterte also said that he found the discoveries being made by Acosta and her team of forensic medico-legal experts who have conducted more than 30 autopsies on children “compelling.” The president admitted that PAO has consistently turned up cases of injected grade-school children who died after apparently suffering the ravages of severe dengue, like massive internal bleeding and multiple organ failure.
Duterte explained that he intends to appoint an independent team that will seek to uncover what really happened in the implementation of the Dengvaxia program, through which more than 830,000 children were given the vaccine through the public school system even if they had not been screened for sero-positivity, or prior infection with the dengue virus. According to Duterte, the panel would include “someone from DoH, perhaps someone from [the University of the Philippines-Philippine General Hospital]and a foreign expert.”
Asked if he will impose a deadline for this team of experts to come up with a report on which he will base future government action, Duterte said he expects it “to report to me by April.” There is also some significance to the president’s decision to pick next month to receive the report.
By next month, the very first schoolchildren who were given Dengvaxia shots would have lost their two-year protection from the mosquito-borne virus, meaning that they may start showing signs of contracting severe dengue in great numbers. Any government action to counteract this potentially catastrophic event from taking place will have to be taken before then.
Furthermore, Duterte and his DoH officials led by Health Secretary Francisco Duque have also drawn flak for not taking a more pro-active stance on the Dengvaxia controversy since Sanofi’s self-damaging revelations in November 2017. In the case of Duque, the official at the center of the public outcry created by the implementation of the vaccination program, he has been accused of unduly protecting the bureaucracy that he heads by refusing to conduct an internal investigation of how the program was deployed or suspending subalterns believed to have been involved – many of whom have serious ethical entanglements with Sanofi and other big pharmaceutical companies that sell their products to the government.
In the months that followed Sanofi’s declaration, I have often wondered why Duterte has not come out with his usual populist guns blazing in defense of the children who have been injected with the controversial vaccine. After all, the Dengvaxia scandal sounds like just the sort of thing that an empathetic populist like Duterte could really get into.
But I realize that Duterte is also a stickler for the proper implementation of the law. The careful prosecutor in Duterte must have told him that he shouldn’t just round up the usual suspects and lock them up for putting hundreds of thousands of children in danger, unless he was backed up by really solid evidence.
A lot of the credit for what I perceive to be the president’s change of heart in the Dengvaxia controversy belongs to Acosta, her chief forensic expert Dr. Erwin Erfe and others in the PAO who took on the case of the dead children and started showing that they fell victim to severe dengue even after they had been given the vaccine. Acosta and her small but persistent team weathered heavy fire from Congress, the DoH, the medical community, the media and even some Palace officials – all of whom seemed hell-bent on destroying their credibility in aid of absolving Sanofi and officials of the Aquino government who implemented the Dengvaxia program.
And now Duterte is starting to see it PAO’s way. Thank goodness for that.