MANILA - Former Health Secretary Paulyn Jean Ubial on Thursday said she was "pressured" by Congress to expand government's controversial dengue immunization program even after "safety questions" were raised.
"During the budget hearing, there was a lot of pressure from Congress to expand it to other parts of the country that have high burden for dengue, in particular Region 7," Ubial said during a joint hearing of the Senate Blue Ribbon and Health & Demography Committees.
Before Ubial was appointed by President Rodrigo Duterte as health chief in July 2016, about 489,000 children were given the Dengvaxia vaccine under the term of Ubial's predecessor, former Health Secretary Janet Garin.
"I immediately released a memorandum to halt the administration of the vaccine in Region 3 and NCR (National Capital Region). I was very vocal as assistant secretary that I was opposing the introduction of the dengue vaccine to a large portion of the population," Ubial said.
Ubial said she did not want to expand the coverage of the dengue immunization program due to "safety questions" about the vaccine.
"I wanted to stick with the decision of the first expert panel to give second doses only to those who received the first dose. After which, we will stop all immunization, look at the pilot case, look at the data and decide on how to move the program forward," she said.
But Ubial said she changed her mind after lawmakers pushed for the program's expansion during budget deliberations in 2016.
"I was pushed, 'Why cant you have a second opinion?'" Ubial said.
The former health chief said she convened a second expert panel before heeding Congress' call to have more Filipino children vaccinated with Dengvaxia.
"The recommendation of the second expert panel was to expand to other areas with high dengue burden," she said.
Under the expanded dengue program, 280,000 children from Central Visayas were given the vaccine, Ubial said.
Sanofi's Dengvaxia triggered a health scare in the Philippines last month after the drug maker admitted that the vaccine could lead to "more cases of severe disease" if given to those who have not had dengue before.
The Department of Health (DOH), now under Secretary Francisco Duque III, has suspended the dengue immunization program and pulled out all Dengvaxia units from the market.