Duque: Dengvaxia controversy 'tainted credibility' of DOH

MANILA, Philippines – Citing reports from the field, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III admitted that the controversy surrounding Dengvaxia, an anti-dengue vaccine, had "tainted the credibility" of the department's immunization program, leading to a drop in immunization coverage.

"Reports from the field show there is a much lower rate of immunization coverage. I would like to take as an example Mindanao and Davao City," Duque said on Monday, February 5, during a House probe into the alleged anomalies in a mass anti-dengue vaccination program amounting to over P3 billion.

Duque was referring to a measles outbreak in Davao City, a major city in Mindanao.

The health department earlier said that only around 60% of Filipino children were getting their scheduled vaccines. The department's annual vaccination target rate is around 85%.

"Even for otherwise very benign programs, such as deworming, people are resisting the deworming activities of the DOH. This is really a cause of concern [that] just because of this one controversial vaccine (Dengvaxia), it has tainted the credibility of the entire DOH immunization program," said Duque. (READ: Dengvaxia safety trial unfinished when vaccination program launched – Duque)

The marching orders for health department personnel is to "not give up."

"They have to continue to convince parents that these innocent vaccines continue to provide sufficient protection," he said.

Congress is investigating allegations of anomalies in the procurement of over P3 billion worth of Dengvaxia from French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi Pasteur.

The Philippine government, during the Aquino administration, bought the vaccine vials for a mass immunization program. This was despite the qualms of health experts that the government should have waited for further studies before implementing the program.

In November 2017, Sanofi announced, citing new studies, that Dengvaxia posed a risk for people who had not contracted the virus prior to vaccination.

Speaking to Rappler after the hearing, Duque confirmed that at least 29 vaccinated children have died. Experts have yet to determine the causes of all the deaths.

Around half of those children were part of a study by the University of the Philippines-Philippine General Hospital (UP-PGH).

The UP-PGH team earlier revealed that 3 of the 14 children who died after receiving the vaccine had dengue after immunization.

Two of those 3 deaths, according to Health Undersecretary Enrique Domingo, were possible cases of "vaccine failure." The deaths of another 3 children were not linked to Dengvaxia. Another 6 cases developed other diseases after the vaccine but the panel has yet to find clear evidence that these were linked to Dengvaxia.

The probe is still ongoing.

Following Sanofi's disclosure of the new study, the Philippine government demanded a refund for both used and unused vials. Sanofi agreed to refund the cost of unused vials but declined the demand for a full refund for vials used.

WATCH Monday's House hearing on the Dengvaxia controversy here Rappler.com