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Philippines: Ex-President Defends Anti-Dengue Vaccine Program

Felipe Villamor
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Former Philippine President Benigno Aquino III testifies during a Senate hearing in Manila investigating the decision to use the anti-dengue vaccine Dengvaxia, Dec. 14, 2017.

Former Philippine President Benigno Aquino III defended his administration’s decision to use an anti-dengue vaccine developed by French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi Pasteur, testifying on Thursday that he was not made aware of the drug’s potentially adverse side effects.

Aquino said he was informed about the extent of dengue outbreak in the Philippines soon after winning the presidency in 2010, and shortly thereafter learned that Sanofi was developing a new medicine against strains of the disease. He faced an epidemic because health officials had warned that the mosquito-borne disease could spread by as much as 1,400 percent.

“Let me stress, before the government made a decision on Dengvaxia, indeed while making the decision, and even after it made a decision, no one warned me about the dangers of the vaccine,” Aquino told a Senate inquiry.

The Philippine government this month suspended a school-based immunization program using the Dengvaxia vaccine and later pulled the drug off shelves nationwide, after Sanofi issued an advisory that it could cause health problems for people who had never been infected with dengue. The government plans to seek a full refund from Sanofi and launched a program to monitor children who were given shots of the vaccine.

“If dengue affects 200,000 cases a year, and possibly could increase by 14 times, the potential people that could contract the disease would be 2.8 million,” Aquino testified.

“That is how many Filipinos would need blood transfusions, who may need hospitalization funded by the government,” he said, adding that his administration had to step up its campaign against dengue. Those efforts resulted in a drop in dengue-related deaths, from more than 1,000 people in 2010 to less than half that number in five years.

He said he met with Sanofi officials in December 2015, when he learned that the French firm’s breakthrough vaccine, Dengvaxia, was prepared for rollout.

The former president stressed that Mexico and Brazil had approved its sale as well. He said he was told the vaccine went through a stringent process of development to determine its “efficacy, and more importantly, its safety.”

“I did not think to deny it to those who really needed it and whose health was in danger were it not for this vaccine,” he said.

Aquino’s testimony came a day after President Rodrigo Duterte said he believed that his predecessor and his administration had acted in good faith when launching a 3.5-billion peso (U.S. $69 million) program to purchase Dengvaxia, touted by its developers as the world’s first approved vaccine against dengue.

The program was launched months before Aquino ended his six-year term and continued into Duterte’s first term, by which time, about 740,000 schoolchildren were given doses of Dengvaxia.

Duterte did not criticize Aquino

Duterte has refrained from openly criticizing Aquino with whom he has feuded publicly in the past.

“It is good faith. If you really think in good faith that you are doing the right thing, nobody, but nobody can question you, except your conscience,” Duterte said. “I am not prepared to pass judgment. I can only inquire and hope everything will give us the truth.”

Had he been president at the time, Duterte said, he would have approved the program since studies then showed that the vaccine could save lives.

On Thursday, Duterte spokesman Harry Roque said the president understood that the purchase had to be implemented to prevent the spread of the deadly disease.

He stressed that, at this stage, it was not certain whether Sanofi “knew about the adverse effects at the time it implemented the vaccination program.”

“He could have joined other individuals in the process of politicizing the issue, and I think you know that there is that political noise now, but he opted to adapt a very sober and very clam response to the controversy,” Roque said.

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