“More than the press releases, the Department of Health (DOH) must explain the issues and implications and give the parents of children who were vaccinated with Dengvaxia the assurance of free and accessible services.”
Sidebar story: People’s health as a business
By ANNE MARXZE D. UMIL
MANILA — It has been three months since the pharmaceutical giant Sanofi Pasteur disclosed to the public the adverse effects of the Dengvaxia vaccine when administered to those who are seronegative or have not contracted dengue prior to the immunization. Still, there have been no concrete steps being done by the present government to address the parents’ fears, said a progressive group of health workers and professionals.
In a press conference on Monday, Feb. 12, the Coalition for People’s Right to Health (CPRH) reiterated that while the investigation on what has led to the fiasco is ongoing, the government must also exert efforts to address the fears of the parents and their children.
“Their panic is real and the government must address that. More than the press releases, the Department of Health (DOH) must explain the issues and implications and give the parents of children who were vaccinated with Dengvaxia the assurance of free and accessible services,” Dr. Julie Caguiat, co-convenor of CPRH and a community doctor told Bulatlat in an interview. She added that during their community visits, parents of children who were vaccinated reported that no one from the DOH has explained the issue and implications of the Dengvaxia vaccine to them.
This is also the lament of Ma. Luz Manes whose daughter was vaccinated with Dengvaxia last year. Her 11-year-old daughter has no history of dengue, which makes her even more anxious.
She noticed that right after the vaccination her child became weak and complained of abdominal pain and headache for months. While this may not be directly connected with the vaccine, still Manes is worried because her daughter is an athlete and has been a gold medalist in her school in Pasig City.
Up to now, she said, the school has not initiated efforts to assist the children who were vaccinated with Dengvaxia. The Department of Health’s media statements on how they plan to assist the patients who were vaccinated with Dengvaxia have not allayed their fears.
It was in November last year when Sanofi admitted that Dengvaxia may have severe symptoms to those who are seronegative.
Degvaxia mess highlighted inept public health education
Caguiat said the increasing panic of parents brought about by the news of deaths related to the Dengvaxia vaccine underscores the long time problem of public health in terms of the role of the Department of Health (DOH) in educating the people on health issues.
Although Health Secretary Francisco Duque III has convened health officials and other experts to address concerns regarding the Dengvaxia fiasco, Caguiat said, they have yet to see the results of the DOH’s efforts on the ground.
“Press releases are not enough,” she said adding that DOH’s statements such as their plan to distribute for free dengue prevention kits are still not apparent in communities.
She said, to allay fears, the DOH should be working with and visible in the communities. “Aside from conducting public hearings and demanding for a refund on the government’s payments (for the Dengvaxia vaccine), they should also conduct an information drive to somehow appease the parents’ concerns,” she told Bulatlat in an interview adding that their fears and panic did not happen without a reason.
“This lasts a lifetime. Imagine that they have to be vigilant all the time just to make sure that their children are safe,” she said stressing that most of the children who were vaccinated came from poor families.
Meanwhile, public school teacher Norman Castillote of Nagpayong Elementary School in Pasig said he makes efforts to monitor his pupils who were vaccinated. He said public school teachers are also worried, as they have taken part in the implementation of the mass vaccination. Fortunately no one from among his students has contracted the disease.
“I had a student who was absent for days. I visited his home and to my relief, I learned that it was due to urinary tract infection,” he said.
Government agencies should unite
Caguiat said the government agencies that have the mandate to act on the Dengvaxia mess should unite instead of engaging in a blaming game. She said what the parents and the children need at this point are services.
Dr. Eleanor Jara, co-convener of CPRH said many groups have been talking about the issue but are not addressing the needs of the victims. Jara said the immunized children are victims due to the fact that they were not provided with the full information that could have enabled the parents to decide whether or not to participate in the mass vaccination.
She said many parents who noted symptoms in their children already associate it with the Dengvaxia vaccine. There were also reports from the community that health centers refuse those who manifest symptoms even for a consultation. The parents were also charged for expensive “dengue test” which costs around P1, 500 ($29) to P2, 000 ($38).
In a forum on the same day at the Philippine General Hospital, which was also organized by the CPRH, Dr. Juliet Sio-Aguilar, chairperson of the Dengue Investigative Task Force (DITF) formed by the DOH, said they are willing to cooperate with the Public Attorney’s Office to further study the deaths being related to Dengvaxia so that the bodies need not be exhumed again for further tests.
The DITF is composed of doctors and experts from the University of the Philippines-PGH. The task force initially reported that only three out of 14 deaths have a “causal association” to the vaccine. She said two children died of dengue hemorrhagic fever even after completing three doses of the Dengvaxia vaccine. The other one who has developed antibodies, which were supposed to protect the child against dengue, died after the first dose.
Aguilar said their report is not yet conclusive, as tests on tissue samples should also be made. She also said many experts here in the Philippines need to look further to what has caused the deaths of the children. “We don’t need experts abroad to come here,” she said.
Dr. Gene Nisperos, Health Alliance for Democracy (HEAD) meanwhile said reports or opinions coming from different sources, experts and institutions regarding the Dengvaxia have only caused confusion among the parents and their children. What’s worse is that health services in the country are already expensive, which also contributes to their fears.
He said what the parents need is someone to assure them that they will be taken care of; and someone who will answer their questions. “This is where the present government is lacking,” he said.
Prosecute all those who are accountable
Jara said what the government called as hysteria is a public health crisis, which resulted to breaking the people’s trust in the government. “The people, especially the masses, trusted government agencies such as the DOH to implement programs with public welfare in mind, in contrast to the growing suspicion of politicking and corruption,” she said.
“This fiasco broke that trust and it would become worse if those responsible will not be held accountable once more,” Jara added.
Nisperos said the betrayal started from the highest level of the bureaucracy, the President. He said President Benigno Aquino III’s reasoning that he does not know the record of Sanofi is unacceptable. The Dengvaxia rollout is also under the command responsibility of then Health Secretary Janette Garin who, he said, railroaded the process from the procurement to the eventual implementation of the mass vaccination.
He also explained that the vaccine and the process of procurement could not be separated. He said others say that the problem lies in the process of procurement and not the vaccine. This is not true, he said.
He said there is something wrong with the vaccine, which was made and sold by Sanofi, the record of which worldwide is shady. Sanofi is facing cases abroad.
“It was like Sanofi is the drug pusher who’s not disclosing all the negative effects of the drug, and the people are the users,” he said.
He said Sanofi, a pharmaceutical giant that made the vaccine, has all the information about the vaccine, its negative and positive effects. However, it did not disclose all the information that could have enabled the people to freely decide whether or not to avail of the vaccine.
Meanwhile, Caguiat said, the hearings in Congress have already spilled the beans and those who are accountable should now be prosecuted. “Enough of the theatrics. Someone should be charged now,” she said.