Sotto to Duque: DOH, not PAO, should take lead in Dengvaxia probe

MANILA, Philippines – For the government to have a "solid" case in court, the Department of Health (DOH) and its "scientific experts" should take the lead in investigating children vaccinated with Dengvaxia who later died due to various causes.

Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III gave this advice to Health Secretary Francisco Duque III at the official's confirmation hearing on Wednesday, January 31. (READ: CA defers confirmation of DOH chief Duque over Dengvaxia issue)

Sotto, Commission on Appointments (CA) assistant majority leader, cast doubts on the capability of the Public Attorney's Office (PAO) to conduct an investigation into the alleged Dengvaxia-related deaths.

“Is PAO now a medical group? The last time I heard, the PAO is under the DOJ (Department of Justice), not the DOH. So if we want to make a solid case like what you mentioned, aba, we charge you to set your foot down – if you’re going to be secretary of health – set your foot down and make the DOH the lead in this investigation, especially in scientific investigations,” said Sotto. 

Kasi kung hindi maganda ang background ng investigation…or even ng nag-iimbestiga at ‘di mga scientific expert talaga, pagdating sa mga korte, patay tayo, ‘di ba? Doon tayo matotodas talaga,” he added.

(Because if the background of the investigation or the people behind the investigation aren't scientific experts, then we will be at a disadvantage when the case goes to court, right? We'd really lose the battle there.)

The PAO is conducting an independent exhumation and forensic examination of some vaccinees after Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II issued Department Order No. 792 in December 2017. 

The order authorized the PAO to "extend free legal assistance in civil, criminal and administrative cases to all possible victims of Dengvaxia related injuries, illnesses and deaths."

Duque told Sotto the DOH has already tapped medical experts from the University of the Philippines-Philippine General Hospital (PGH) to assess the medical records of another set of vaccinated children who died.

The PGH panel, whose findings will be released on Friday, February 2, will determine if Dengvaxia had influenced the children's deaths. (READ: TIMELINE: Dengue immunization program for public school students)

“Certainly we welcome the very sound recommendation of Senator Majority Floor Leader [Sotto] and we will do exactly that. Our view is that the UP-PGH I think has, again, the expertise, the competency, the credibility to be able to make a very objective and sound science-based report on the records and clinical charge of the exhumed bodies,” said Duque. 

The health chied had formed another task force of top doctors and scientists currently helping the DOH assess and implement its plans to monitor the health of the vaccinated children. They are:

‘Conflict of interest’

Duque previously requested a meeting with PAO chief Persida Acosta and top officials of the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption in an effort to “complement” probes into the Dengvaxia issue. 

But Acosta said PAO would not share the results of its findings to the DOH due to “conflict of interest.” 

Eh kasi paano namin padadaanin eh ang gusto nga ng kararamihang mga magulang, DOH ang i-demanda dahil sila nga po ang nag-mass vaccination? May conflict of interest,” she said in a phone interview with reporters. 

(Why would we share it with the DOH when most of the parents want to file a case against them because they implemented the vaccination? There is conflict of interest.)

Duque told the CA this was precisely why he decided to tap the PGH panel and form the second task force, as several DOH officials were being accused of conducting “mafia-like” operations. (READ: Duque, health officials deny existence of 'DOH mafia')

Acosta reminded Sotto and the other CA members that her office has been conducting forensic examinations since 2004, when PAO's forensic laboratory was first established.  

“[Taong] 2004 pa po may forensic laboratory na ang Public Attorney’s Office para kung walang mapuntahan ang mga maralitang Pilipino, may conflict sa NBI (National Bureau of Investigation) o sa SOCO (Scene of the Crime Operatives), sa PAO po pumupunta (The Public Attorney’s Office established its forensic laboratory in 2004 so poor Filipinos can go to us. If there are conflicts with the NBI and SOCO, they go to PAO),” said Acosta. 

She also said PAO’s forensic laboratory is manned by external pathologists and experts on internal medicine and infectious diseases. 

A group of 58 doctors, among them two former DOH chiefs, has also criticized the “unsubstantiated accusations by persons whose qualifications to render any expert opinion on the matter are questionable at best” over the Dengvaxia controversy. – Rappler.com

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda writes about politics and women’s rights for Rappler. She covers the House of Representatives and the Office of the Vice President. Got tips? Send her an email at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or shoot her a tweet @maracepeda.

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