MANILA - The government's job is to allay public fears, not escalate panic.
This is what former president Benigno Aquino III said Thursday as he defended his administration's P3.4 billion dengue vaccination program that is now at the center of a health scare.
The Philippines earlier this month suspended the program after French drug maker Sanofi said vaccine Dengvaxia, which the Aquino administration administered to 830,000 children, might increase the risk of severe dengue in recipients not previously infected by the mosquito-borne virus.
"Sa lahat po ng usapin ngayon ukol sa Dengvaxia, kung 'di man diretsong sinasabi, ang pakiwari ay kung nagbabakuna ka, tila nalalapit ka sa pinakamalubhang uri ng dengue, tila nalalapit ka sa kamatayan," Aquino told senators investigating the issue.
(Amid all the issues about Dengvaxia, even if it is not directly said, the assumption is if you were vaccinated, you are seemingly more exposed to a severe dengue and closer to death.)
"Noong kami po ang namamahala, malinaw sa amin, kung tatakutin mo nang husto ang tao, darating ang punto na hindi na sila makakakilos dahil sa kaba. Klaro po sa amin noon na trabaho ng gobyerno na pakalmahin at suportahan ang Pilipino."
(When we were in the government, it was clear to us that if you will scare the public, there will come a point when they can no longer act because of apprehension. It was clear to us that the job of the government was to calm down and support the Filipino.)
Senator Richard Gordon, who leads the investigation as chair of the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee, had said that findings of previous hearings indicate that there was "unbelievable" haste in the procurement of Dengvaxia, which placed recipients in harm.
AQUINO GOES ON DEFENSE
Aquino, for his part, explained that some P2.8 million Filipinos were at risk of contacting dengue before the Dengvaxia deal, according to a 2010 memo from then health secretary Enrique Ona.
At a climate change conference in 2015, he said he met with several firms including Sanofi, which said its dengue vaccine was ready for distribution after years of trial.
The vaccine, he said, was also approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, Brazil and Mexico.
"Sa akin pong pakiwari at pagka-unawa sa lahat ng ibinalita sa atin ng mga eksperto, dumaan na po ito sa lahat ng proseso para malaman ang kaniyang efficacy at mas importante, ang kaniyang safety," he said.
(In my opinion and understanding of everything experts told me, the vaccine passed all necessary processes to ensure its efficacy, and more importantly, its safety.)
"Bago nagdesisyon ang gobyerno sa Dengvaxia, habang nagdedesiyon at maski pagkatapos magdesisyon, wala pong nagparating sa akin ng pagtutol sa naturang bakuna," he added.
(Before the government decided regarding Dengvaxia, while it was deciding and after it decided, no one approached me with opposition against the said vaccine)
A Reuters report, citing documents and local experts, said last week that the Dengvaxia program was rolled out without heeding a an advisory body of doctors and pharmacologists, who urged caution over the vaccine because its safety and cost-effectiveness had not been established.
The Formulary Executive Council (FEC) of advisers had said Dengvaxia should be introduced through small-scale pilot tests and phased implementation rather than across 3 regions at the same time, and only after a detailed "baseline" study of the prevalence and strains of dengue in the targeted area.
The experts also recommended that Dengvaxia be bought in small batches so the price could be negotiated down.
The DOH purchased 3 million doses of Dengvaxia in one lot, enough for the required 3 vaccinations for each child in the proposed immunization program. The agency paid P1,000 pesos per dose, a copy of the purchase order reviewed by Reuters shows.
Former health Secretary Janette Garin, for her part, has said the program was "implemented in accordance with WHO (World Health) guidance and recommendations".