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Dissonance in the Acosta-Gordon duet

Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) chief Persida Acosta and Sen. Dick Gordon have shared the blame for the sudden drop in public acceptance of vaccination. Health practitioners have alleged that their unsupported denunciation of the antidengue Dengvaxia as a dangerous, deadly vaccine drove people away from vaccination in general, contributing to the spike in measles cases and deaths. In the first two months of 2019, the Department of Health (DOH) reported over 16,000 measles cases and over 260 deaths. Most of the dead had no antimeasles inoculation.

Most of the people following this complex issue, like me, have no medical training. Which is why Acosta and Gordon, also without medical training, needed to exercise prudence in their public statements. Both have been unrestrained and unrepentant. Acosta now claims the suit against those who decided on the mass Dengvaxia immunization program constituted “proof PAO didn’t start vaccine scare.” Huh? The Department of Justice (DOJ) issued the indictment on  March 1, 2019; the vaccine scare started in 2017.

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Still careless with dates, she accused the DOH of proceeding with mass inoculation, disregarding the danger of administering Dengvaxia without prior blood test and screening. Sanofi, the Dengvaxia producer, learned of the risk only after the mass vaccination had started. Receiving the information, the DOH stopped the program on Dec. 1, 2017, after 830,000 pupils had undergone inoculation.

Independent health experts have been unable to confirm that any of the dengue deaths they have examined resulted from taking Dengvaxia, the PAO’s allegation in the 35 complaints, covering 33 deaths, that it has filed. But the PAO has yet to present a single case proving that Dengvaxia caused death. It declared discovery of a “medical link” between deaths of dengue-infected children and the Dengvaxia vaccine, without explaining the nature of that link.

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Surprisingly, Gordon, in an Inquirer article (“Suit proof PAO didn’t start vaccine scare–Acosta,” 3/4/19) changed his tune, effectively sabotaging his partner’s case. He reportedly “expressed doubt that the [PAO] charges … would prosper in court.” In a quote from a radio interview, Gordon reportedly said: “They only focused on the complaint about the deaths [of those inoculated with Dengvaxia]. But there’s no problem with those deaths … Because it has yet to be proven that [Dengvaxia] is the principal cause of the deaths. We really don’t have any evidence to support [that allegation].” Nor did he have evidence at the time of his Senate hearings last year, when these allegations about Dengvaxia triggered fears about vaccination.

Gordon’s admission that his hearings had not discovered any evidence against Dengvaxia documented the flaw in the approach he and Acosta followed. They failed to distinguish between two aspects of the Dengvaxia case: the effectiveness of the vaccine as a measure against dengue; and the compliance, in its purchase, with pertinent rules and regulations. Both elements are important but must be separately evaluated.

The report quoting Gordon alluded to the “failed immunization program.” In what way was the program a failure? Did Dengvaxia fail to protect the 830,000 pupils who received the vaccine? But neither Gordon nor Acosta seemed interested in the dengue victims and the public health issue confronting the DOH. They appeared oblivious to the 2015 surge in dengue cases, when the number of deaths reached 2,000, provoking alarm among doctors and hospitals. Their priority concern was the possible corruption in the Dengvaxia procurement, which they also have yet to establish.

Could Dengvaxia have been an effective vaccine, but its procurement tainted by corruption? Certainly. Also possible is a transaction immaculate in the observance of procurement rules but providing a vaccine ineffective in moderating the impact of the disease. Or, sadly, we could get a useless vaccine corruptly procured. People are rightly enraged by the number and scale of corruption cases that have lately assailed them. But people, especially those with loved ones at risk, also fear the dengue danger. We deserve both good governance and timely protection against epidemics.

But, bottom line: Acosta and Gordon have arguably aggravated the public health problem, without advancing the anticorruption agenda. They did get good media coverage.

Edilberto C. de Jesus ([email protected] gmail.com) is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.

Business Matters is a project of Makati Business Club.

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TAGS: chief, Dengvaxia deaths, DoH, DOJ, immunization program, PAO, Persida Acosta, public attorney’s office, Sen. Dick Gordon, vaccination
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