MANILA - A public health expert on Friday called for legal action on the government's recently suspended dengue immunization program, after a vaccine maker said the drug poses risks to individuals not previously infected with dengue.
In a Facebook post, Dr. Susan Mercado, a former government health undersecretary and director of noncommunicable diseases and health through the life-course of the World Health Organization Regional Office for the Western Pacific, said the the P3.4 billion vaccine program was the "biggest government funded clinical-trial-masked-as-a-public-health-program scam of an experimental drug in the history of the [Department of Health]."
"This was reckless and irresponsible from the start and the public was deceived into thinking this vaccine would protect children from dengue," the post read.
"The public health community has been outraged for over a year. Legal action is now necessary. Families should be compensated for damages and the decision-makers behind this deal should be brought to justice."
Mercado said many scientists and experts voiced their opposed the vaccination program before it was implemented.
"As far as I know, there were many scientists, many voices who were not in agreement with doing this immunization program even within the Department of Health. And I think records are going to show that even before formulary exec that was in charge of the technical oversight for allowing a new vaccine to be used for public health purposes was not in favor of using this," she said in an ANC interview.
She added that someone should be held accountable for the program that vaccinated children who have not had the dengue virus and put them at risk of more serious illnesses.
"Well, I was saying that we should have legal action. Right now, it is not clear to me. I am not a lawyer. I don’t know how to attribute the accountability but somebody should be accountable for all those children who were vaccinated who do not have had dengue, could have a severe case of dengue 10 years from now," she said.
The Philippines was the 1st country in Asia to approve the Dengvaxia vaccine for individuals aged 9 and 45 years old in December 2015.
The Department of Health procured P3 billion worth of Dengvaxia intended for one million public school children in areas reported to have the highest incidence of dengue on the same year. As of November 2017, about 733,713 Filipino children have been given the anti-dengue vaccine.
On Wednesday Sanofi Pasteur announced that for those not previously infected by dengue virus, more cases of severe disease could occur following vaccination.
"For individuals who have not been previously infected by dengue virus, vaccination should not be recommended," the company said.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said Friday cases of "severe dengue infection" have yet to be reported among some 700,000 Filipino children given the vaccine.
The DOH has suspended its anti-dengue vaccination program, but private health care providers still have the discretion if they want to continue administering the vaccine on patients.
"Hindi lahat ng nabakunahan ay at risk. Ang at risk lang dito ay 'yung mga nabakunahan na hindi pa nagkaka-dengue," DOH spokesman Dr. Lyndon Lee Suy said.
Former Health Secretary Paulyn Ubial, meanwhile, said that the DOH continued the program for children who have already been vaccinated in order to complete the required dosage.
"Yes, there were already concerns about this vaccine causing more serious illness to those not exposed to the virus before the vaccination. But there was also this dilemma at that time, that if you do not complete the 3 doses, the protection is somewhat limited," Ubial told ANC.
"So it was really the recommendation of the export panel not to expand to new set of individuals but rather to continue on those who were already given the first dose to complete 3 doses for the vaccine," she added.
Senator JV Ejercito, chairman of the Committee on Health, vowed to investigate the vaccine program.
"I intend to call a hearing sometime January because I want the DOH, experts and doctors to go investigate and come up with recommendations. Because after all, they are in a better position to investigate this matter," Ejercito told ANC.
"I’d just like to probably give them also the benefit of the doubt, probably there was an outbreak then and probably the DOH officials back then were just excited that there’s a cure finally. We don’t know. But still, it’s a P3 billion purchase that’s proven it’s not really effective and it has already caused some panic then we really have to investigate," he added.