Gordon wants to probe DOH's school-based dengue immunization

MANILA, Philippines – Senator Richard Gordon on Tuesday, October 11 said there may be a need to investigate the health department's school-based dengue immunization program, given the "sudden, undue haste in providing the vaccine."

"Senator [Nancy] Binay also wants to do it [investigate], but there's been an awful lot of questions about this," Gordon told reporters after the Department of Health's (DOH) budget hearing at the Senate on Tuesday.

Around 489,000 public school students (at least 9 years old) in Central Luzon, Calabarzon, and the National Capital Region are set to receive their second dose of the dengue vaccine from October to December 2016.

While DOH's proposed P144-billion budget for 2017 does not include any allocation for the vaccine, Gordon still raised the issue during the hearing.

His concern stems from the fact that the government started administering the vaccine to public school students in April 2016 – less than 4 months after it was cleared by the Food and Drug Administration in December 2015.

He questioned whether the dengue vaccine is a priority program, considering that the government "rushed" its implementation. (READ: DOH dispels fears on safety of new dengue vaccine)

"I'm trying to find out if it's demand-driven or supply-driven…. Wala pang ibang gumagamit sa Asia. Mexico is the other one. Bakit naman tayo magiging guinea pig? Dapat siguruhin natin (No one else in Asia has used this. Mexico is the other one. Why should we be the guinea pig? We should be sure about this)," Gordon said.

"Palabas na yung administrasyon, biglang naglabas ng ganoong perang kalaki, P4 na bilyon (The last administration was already on its way out, and then it came out with this much money, P4 billion)," he added, referring to the budget used to procure the vaccines.

During the hearing, Health Secretary Paulyn Ubial clarified that this was not part of DOH's 2015 budget, but it was allocated by the Department of Budget and Management (DBM).

"[Ito'y] dumaan sa proseso ayon sa procedures ng DBM…. Ito'y dumaan sa government procedures sapagkat 'di naman kami hahayaan bumili ng bakuna kung ito'y sasalungat sa mga procedures na acceptable at legal sa ating pamahalaan," Health Spokesperson Eric Tayag told reporters after the hearing.

(This went through a process based on DBM procedures.... This went through government procedures because we will not be allowed to procure vaccines if this goes against procedures that are deemed acceptable and legal by the government.)

DOH 'open to discussion'

Last October 4, the health department told lawmakers at the House of Representatives that the program will be expanded to include public school students in Central Visayas.

On Tuesday, however, Tayag said Ubial is still seeking the recommendation of an expert panel on the matter.

"Sinisiguro na [ang] karanasan ukol dito, kasama [ang] pagsusuri, maire-report ng maayos, so ngayon po hinihintay namin habilin ng expert panel (We're making sure that we will report clearly our experience and research on this, so now we're still awaiting the recommendation of the expert panel)," he told reporters.

Asked if the program was rushed, Tayag answered: "Lumalabas nga na parang mabilis, pero sinusunod ng Kagawaran ng Kalusugan ang mga alituntunin at rekomendaysong naibigay ng World Health Organization bago gamitin ang bakuna."

(It may appear that this program was rushed, but the Department of Health followed the rules and recommendations of the World Heath Organization before using this vaccine.)

And while they don't see any irregularities in the program's implementation, he said DOH is open to any discussion because they want to remain transparent. 

During the hearing, Ubial said it is the expert panel's recommendation to review the results of the school-based dengue immunization program in the 3 pilot areas before considering its nationwide implementation.

Dengue, a disease common in tropical and sub-tropical countries, is transmitted through the bite of an Aedes mosquito. Dengue fever is potentially fatal and mainly affects children.

The Philippines is among countries in the Western Pacific region with the highest incidence of dengue in recent years. – Rappler.com

Jee Y. Geronimo

Jee is part of Rappler's Central Desk, handling most of the world, science, and environment stories on the site. She enjoys listening to podcasts and K-pop, watching Asian dramas, and running long distances. She hopes to visit Israel someday to retrace the steps of her Savior.

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