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As dengue rises, Palace open to Dengvaxia use

MANILA, Philippines — Filipinos may not have seen the last of the controversial Dengvaxia vaccine yet.

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The Duterte administration is still open to allowing the use of the dengue vaccine again if experts agree to recommend it to combat the rising number of cases of the mosquito-borne disease in the country, according to presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo.

“That has to be discussed thoroughly and extensively. We need experts to support any call for the return of Dengvaxia,” Panelo said in response to a proposal by Iloilo Rep. Janette Garin, a former health secretary, to make the vaccine available anew to the public.

“We’re always open to anything that will benefit the Filipino people. We’re not closed to any suggestion,” he said.

He noted, however, that health experts were divided over the benefits of the vaccine.

“We need to thoroughly investigate exactly the situation involving Dengvaxia,” Panelo said. “Certainly, if the weight of the findings [by experts] show that there is benefit in using Dengvaxia against dengue, then certainly the government should consider it.”

Halted in 2017

The Department of Health (DOH) stopped its massive dengue immunization program using Dengvaxia in late 2017 after its manufacturer, the French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi Pasteur, said patients who had no prior exposure to the dengue virus could suffer severe symptoms.

More than 800,000 public school children had already been inoculated under the P3.5-billion immunization program, which began during the Aquino administration, by the time it was halted. Sanofi later reimbursed P1.16 billion to the government for the unused vaccines.

The aborted mass vaccination triggered congressional inquiries and lawsuits, including graft charges against former President Benigno Aquino III, Garin and former Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, among other people.

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The Public Attorney’s Office also filed homicide complaints against health officials for the deaths of dozens of children allegedly caused by Dengvaxia. But in January 2019, the DOH said no death had been confirmed to have been directly caused by the vaccine.

Political pressure

Garin told reporters on Wednesday that the country would not be suffering from the current dengue outbreak if the government had not discontinued its immunization program using Dengvaxia.

She said the dengue problem would not be as grave as it was now if Health Secretary Francisco Duque III had not caved in to political pressure amid the Dengvaxia scare. “The truth is we predicted this in 2010,” she said.

“In 2012, the WHO (World Health Organization) gave the mandate [to use Dengvaxia]. In 2014, the DOH took action. In 2017, there was a Dengvaxia scare, and now, if Secretary Duque persists in avoiding the advice of the real experts, our people would continue to suffer,” Garin said.

The vaccination program, she said, was intended to reduce hospitalization by 80 percent and bring down the severity of the disease by 93 percent. Some people will still suffer from dengue but, like in Brazil, the cases will be  mild, she added.

She noted that Dengvaxia was recently included in WHO’s biennial list of “essential medicines.”

“The government is mandated to make it available to people, especially private doctors and patients,” Garin said.

National alert

Duque declared a national alert on July 15 due to the nationwide spike in the number of dengue cases.

The outbreak has also prompted local officials to declare a state of calamity in the Island Garden City of Samal in Davao del Norte, in Iloilo City and in the provinces of Zamboanga Sibugay, Cavite, South Cotabato, Leyte, Eastern Samar and Samar.

The DOH’s Epidemiology Bureau reported 8,295 dengue cases in just a week (July 7-13), 53 percent more than the figure for the same period last year.

As of July 13, there had already been more than 130,000 reported dengue cases nationwide, with 561 deaths, or almost double than last year’s. Close to 30,000 cases were children aged 5 to 9.

Western Visayas had the worst situation with 18,943 cases and 95 deaths.

Other regions with high dengue cases were Calabarzon (14,588 cases, 54 deaths), Zamboanga (10,893 cases, 56 deaths), Northern Mindanao (10,393 cases, 28 deaths) and Soccsksargen (10,356 cases, 47 deaths).

Threshold crossed

These regions, along with Mimaropa, Bicol, Eastern Visayas and the former Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, have already crossed the epidemic threshold. That means the recorded cases in these areas have breached their average number of cases over the last five years.

Health Undersecretary Rolando Enrique Domingo on Wednesday said all the DOH regional directors would meet in Manila on Friday to determine what other measures could be taken to stop the surge of dengue cases.

“This is so we could calibrate [our efforts], if needed, and where we need to add prepositioned supplies,” Domingo said. —With reports from Jovic Yee and Inquirer Research

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TAGS: Dengue outbreak, Dengvaxia, Janette Garin, Salvador Panelo
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