The advisory issued this week by global vaccines leader Sanofi Pasteur against using its own dengue vaccine, Dengvaxia, on people who have had no prior infection only confirms what some health officials and advocates have been warning us about all along.
Sanofi Pasteur informed the Philippine Department of Health (DoH) on Wednesday that new analysis of clinical data gathered over a six-year period showed that while Dengvaxia helped patients infected in the last 30 months, those who have had no prior infection may in the long term be at risk of contracting a more severe case of dengue.
This makes the most urgent order of the day most obvious: Stop the Dengvaxia vaccinations right now.
We recognize the swift announcement by the DoH on Friday that it would suspend its dengue immunization program. We will check the actual implementation.
Naturally, health advocates jumped in a reflex reaction to Sanofi’s advisory. On Thursday, Dr. Anthony Leachon, the former president of the Philippine College of Physicians Foundation, expressed concern over the welfare of the 700,000 schoolchildren in the National Capital Region (NCR), Calabarzon and Central Luzon who had received Dengvaxia shots under the DoH’s immunization program.
They have not been tested for previous exposure to the dengue virus and Leachon says it is not certain who among them would develop severe dengue. He warns they may all have to face that possibility for the rest of their lives. He adds that Congress and the Senate had been advised that mass vaccination was not advisable without a rigid selection process.
Surrounded by controversy
The school-based dengue immunization program has been a subject of controversy triggered by doubts over the efficacy of Sanofi’s vaccine and the enormous financial burden on the government. The program, launched in 2016, had been allocated a P3.5 billion budget.
Opponents of the program have also objected to its early launch — merely four months after the government had approved the local use of Dengvaxia.
It now seems President Duterte’s first Health Secretary Paulyn Ubial had the right instinct in hesitating to expand the immunization program she inherited from her former boss at the DoH, Secretary Janette Garin. Garin launched the program using Dengvaxia in April 2016 under the previous administration of President Benigno Aquino 3rd.
Garin had blamed Ubial for not aggressively pursuing the school-based dengue vaccination program and for the resulting low turnout. “She (Ubial) actually kept mentioning that the safety (of Dengvaxia) is questionable, so as a parent, matatakot ka talaga (you’d be really scared),” Garin was quoted as saying in a report by ABS-CBN News in June this year.
Ubial had said she was looking out for for other dengue vaccines then undergoing clinical trials and would be due for launch soon. Eventually, however, before the new vaccines could be commercially launched, Ubial relented to the use of Dengvaxia, though with a pledge that with or without it, she was going to pursue the anti-dengue campaign of the government.
Unfortunately, Ubial was not appreciated enough by the Commission on Appointments, which in October turned down her appointment as Health secretary.
Incumbent Health Secretary Francisco Duque 3rd would do well to keep in mind the serious doubts raised over the use of Sanofi’s dengue vaccine and pick up where Ubial left off.
Indeed, protecting ourselves and our children from the disease must be a shared responsibility. But the DoH is mandated with the duty of leading in the campaign to fight against any disease that threatens to spread across the country. It must keep the public informed of the real risks posed by the virus carrier and what the people can do to protect themselves. Most important, the DoH must ensure that the medicines or vaccines obtained from abroad and prescribed locally are safe.