MANILA - For House Deputy Speaker Gwen Garcia, she and her colleagues were only doing their jobs when they lobbied for then Health Secretary Paulyn Ubial for the implementation of the dengue immunization program in their districts.
In a hearing Monday, Ubial told senators that she was under pressure from lawmakers to implement the program, which drew controversy after drug maker Sanofi Pasteur admitted that its anti-dengue vaccine Dengvaxia may cause more severe symptoms if given to those who have not had dengue before.
Garcia said this happened during the budget deliberations in 2016 when she saw that the original program covered Region 7, which she represents, and that there was a "balance" of about 300,000 despite the implementation in Metro Manila, Central Luzon, and CALABARZON.
Cebu was chosen as one of the implementation areas as it had the highest dengue rates annually, Garcia said.
She stressed that when they lobbied for it, they were led to believe that it was safe.
Garcia said she questioned the Department of Health why it was not implementing the program when it had signed a memorandum of agreement with the Department of Interior and Local Government and the Department of Education for its rollout.
"I said, 'What are you going to do with all of these vaccines na nabili na because according to you and according to the papers that have been given to us from the DOH, there was a panel of experts already that have recommended itong vaccination program? Ngayon, you have passed another resolution with another set of experts asking for a halt. Which is which?'," she recalled.
"We had to ask at that time because 'yung Congress kasi is tasked to scrutinize the budget further. As a congresswoman of my constituency, I was seeing at that time that the vaccination program would help our school children kasi hindi nga sila makaka-afford niyan, the commercial price outside kung magpapa-vaccinate would be P3,600 to 4,000 per dose," she said.
"I said I have gone around the entire province, I have seen how difficult it is sa mga bata, 'yung parents nila di maka-afford ng vaccination with that kind of price. Pero with this kind of government program, at least we can protect them from getting dengue. So it was not only me, meron din ibang mga congressmen because that is the way we work in Congress," she added.
Garcia further explained it was Ubial who had been inconsistent with her position on the Dengvaxia vaccine.
"We see to it money is spent judiciously. At that time, she could not give a clear answer kung bakit nag-flipflop. At first, she agreed even as assistant secretary under then-Secretary [Janette] Garin," she said.
"She was endorsing this program, but when she became the Secretary, kahit may previous resolution na signed by the regional panel of experts, even signed by the WHO (World Heath Organization) Asia Pacific representative eh napalabas siya ng ibang resolution na naman na i-hold 'yung vaccination," she said.
Garcia said Ubial could not give lawmakers a clear answer why two experts gave conflicting opinions.
"I said, 'When the WHO Asia Pacific representative has in fact endorsed this program, please tell us what are you going to do if you halt it, kung mayroon ka na namang another set of experts that will say and it was notable na hindi nga pumirma 'yung original set that signed that resolution, may papers tayo lahat diyan," she recalled telling the career health official.
"We were just performing our jobs at that is our mandate, that we have to scrutinize our budget and see to it that it is spent wisely. She could not give a clear explanation why. She kept flipflopping, she couldn't answer us. Ano gagawin niya, nabili na dengue vaccines? That's why other congressmen said kung may sobra diyan, ilagay niyo naman doon sa aming region."
Garcia also addressed the alleged pressure representatives exerted on Ubial, who had to pass through the Commission on Appointments. The bicameral panel rejected Ubial as health chief in October.
"You're supported to be the SOH (Secretary of Health), nasa kamay mo 'yung buhay ng may buhay ng mga bata. If you really honestly and truly really believe that the dengue vaccination program would harm the children, because ikaw 'yung nasa medical field, ikaw may medical position, do you think you'll allow yourself to be pressured? Do you deserve to be SOH kung 'yun na lang maisabi na 'Pinressure ako ng mga congressmen and I gave in'? Buti sana kung 'di buhay nakasalalay sa iyong desisyon," she said.
"I don't think it's a good excuse to say 'I was pressured' because when you're given that responsibility, you stand for it. Ang 'di ko rin alam kung ano ba talaga posisyon. She flipflopped after na-resume 'yung dengue immunization program. She came to Cebu and gave an interview on TV saying dengue vaccine is safe. She flipflopped again. Mahirap kung wala ka talagang klaro na posisisyon. May paniniwala ka, dapat paninindigan mo 'yun," she said.
Garcia recalled what she said during that hearing: "Please do not withhold this from our poor school children. I have seen them when I was governor, I have reached the farthest barangay elementary schools...They cannot even sometimes afford a pair of shoes or slippers."
She recalled addressing Ubial, too: "You were a rural doctor in the past...Sa iba't iba mong assignments, nakita mo na how poor our school children can be, lalong lalo na sa mga barangay. I hope you will put that in your heart and mind. This vaccine could save them because that is what we knew at that time and, as I said sa kanila, 'yung DOH endorsed it... Nagtatalo pa rin 2 schools of thought at that time it was endorsed by DOH, they started already with the first dose."
In the December 12, 2016 hearing of the health committee on Dengvaxia, then Kabayan Representative Harry Roque grilled Ubial about her position.
"Kasi noong budget hearing po tinanong ko na rin ito, ang aking naging alegasyon atras-abante si Secretary Ubial depending on who's asking. She's for implementation sometimes, and she's not for implementation sometimes."
Roque asked Ubial: "So sang-ayon po sa sinabi ninyo, maski hindi kayo sigurado dahil may recommendation ang WHO, in-implement ninyo?"
Ubial answered: "Yes, your honor."
Pressed further by Garcia in that hearing, Ubial demurred.
Garcia said, "Can you say with all honesty that you are committed to this dengue vaccination program? Because we need to get a clear, unequivocal stand from the present Secretary of Health."
Ubial then answered: "I defer to the recommendation of the expert committee that penned their recommendation on October 3, 2016 that they recommended to the DOH the expansion of the immunization program and the recommendation of the WHO to actually implement introduction of dengue vaccine only in geographic settings, where epidemiologic data indicate a high burden of disease."