MANILA, Philippines – The House of Representatives' probe into the health department's school-based dengue immunization program was cut short on Monday, November 21 after several lawmakers questioned why former Health Secretary Janette Garin was not invited to the hearing.
"I move that we defer this inquiry because the very person, the most important person involved in this inquiry, was not invited. There's something fishy here. We should begin the investigation [or] inquiry at the presence of the person involved with this inquiry," SAGIP Representative Rodante Marcoleta said less than 10 minutes after the resource persons were recognized.
Garin was scheduled to appear in the November 29 hearing, but was eventually recognized on Monday.
Quezon 4th District Representative Angelina Tan moved to defer the proceedings and to reschedule it to November 29. Tan deemed it better to move the hearing since "mahirap mag-usap (it's difficult to talk)" when emotions were already running high.
"The members have some questions on the procedure of inviting guests, and I thought okay na kasi (it was already okay) we allowed the former secretary to sit," she told reporters after her motion was approved and the committee hearing was adjourned.
Marcoleta also wanted the resource persons to secure approval from the organizations they represent before speaking about the dengue vaccine at the hearing.
Tan, chair of the House committee on health, explained that her decision to invite Garin on the November 29 hearing was a strategic move on her part.
"As the chair of the committee, you strategize sinong unang dapat pakinggan…. Ako as chair, gusto kong marinig 'yung mga tao sa baba involved in, first is, approval of the FDA [Food and Drug Administration], so very important 'yung formulary evaluation committee."
(As the chair of the committee, you strategize who you should listen to first. I, as chair, would like to hear first people involved in, first is, the approval of the FDA, so the formulary evaluation committee very important.)
She added: "Ang fear ko lang baka kasi lahat sila nandyan, sila-sila lang nag-usap [within] the 4 corners of the room, I don't know anong mga sasabihin nila. Gusto lang natin that they will answer based on their conscience, kasi I read na the minutes of the meeting, and there's a reason to probe this program."
(My only fear is that if they are all there, and they would talk among themselves within the 4 corners of the room, I don't know what things they will say. What we want is that they will answer based on their conscience, because I've read the minutes of the meeting, and there's a reason to probe this program.)
Garin said during the short hearing that while she supposedly will be out of the country on November 29, she is willing to fly back "for purposes of transparency."
"If program is wrong and we cancel it, I will take full responsibility. But I would like those spreading misinformation to take full accountability. Bilang mga doktor, malaking kasalanan na may mga buhay na nasasawi, dahil sa pagsisinungaling, if they will be misled [and] taken out of the program," she added.
(If program is wrong and we cancel it, I will take full responsibility. But I would like those spreading misinformation to take full accountability. As doctors, it would be a big mistake to lose lives, because of lies, if they will be misled [and] taken out of program.)
'Let real experts speak'
In a separate interview with reporters, Garin called for a transparent investigation, beginning with the resource persons invited.
"It's easy to say: 'I represent PGH [Philippine General Hospital].' Were they invited? Did PGH send [that representative]? 'I represent Monetary Board [of PhilHealth].' What does the board have to do with vaccination?" Garin said, the latter description an apparent reference to Dr Anthony Leachon.
Leachon is an independent director of the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth) and a representative of the Monetary Board.
He and other health advocates have raised the alarm over what they call a "rushed" implementation of the school-based dengue immunization program.
While she welcomes the investigation, Garin insisted that the poor should not be deprived of a vaccine that the rich could afford to buy, especially if the government can provide such vaccine.
She did not mince words regarding those who oppose the program.
"Walang problema, mag-imbestiga tayo, pero (It's not a problem, let's go ahead and investigate, but) let real experts speak, let people involved in program speak. Congress should not be a forum wherein people who want to get media mileage will be allowed to sit down and pretend to be experts when in fact they're not," she added.
Garin said she did not decide on her own when they went ahead with the first round of immunization in April – less than 4 months after it was cleared by the FDA in December 2015.
"Kung bawal siya, bakit puwede sa pribadong sektor [and] used by other countries? Hindi mo pwede basta-basta ipahinto…. Kaya 'di hinihinto ng DOH [Department of Health] kasi alam nilang walang problema ang programa," she explained.
(If the vaccine shouldn't be given to the public, why is it okay in the private sector and used by other countries? You can't just stop this program…. The reason why the DOH is not stopping it is because they know there’s no problem in the program.)
By now, the health department should have already started administering the second dose of the dengue vaccine to around 489,000 public school students (at least 9 years old) in Central Luzon, Calabarzon, and the National Capital Region.
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.
For the November 29 hearing, Tan wants to look into a few things regarding the program:
Leachon, meanwhile, said he will try to seek clearance from PhilHealth. Still, he insisted that aside from his role at PhilHealth, he is also an independent health advocate. – Rappler.com
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.