Philippines orders inquiry into dengue vaccine scare

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A worker shows used anti-dengue vaccine Dengvaxia inside a vaccine storage room in Sta. Cruz city, Metro Manila, Philippines, on Monday. — Reuters

MANILA — The Philippines ordered a probe on Monday into the immunization of more than 730,000 children with a vaccine for dengue that has been suspended following an announcement by French drug company Sanofi that it could worsen the disease in some cases.

Amid mounting public concern, Sanofi explained its “new findings” at a news conference in Manila, but it did not say why action was not taken after a World Health Organization (WHO) report in mid-2016 that identified the risk it was now flagging.

A non-governmental organization (NGO) said it had received information that three children who were vaccinated with Dengvaxia had died and a senator said he was aware of two cases.

However, Department of Health Undersecretary Gerardo Bayugo said that the three referred to by the NGO died due to causes not related to the vaccine, and Sanofi said no deaths had been reported as a result of the program.

“As far as we know, as far as we are made aware, there are no reported deaths that are related to dengue vaccination,” said Ruby Dizon, medical director at Sanofi Pasteur Philippines.

Last week, the Philippines Department of Health halted the use of Dengvaxia after Sanofi said it must be strictly limited due to evidence it can worsen the disease in people not previously exposed to the infection.

In a statement, Sanofi said the long-term safety evaluation of the vaccines showed significantly fewer hospitalizations due to dengue in vaccinated people over 9 years old compared with those who had not been vaccinated.

Nearly 734,000 children aged 9 and over in the Philippines have received one dose of the vaccine as part of a program that cost 3.5 billion pesos ($69.54 million).

The Department of Justice on Monday ordered the National Bureau of Investigation to look into “the alleged danger to public health ... and if evidence so warrants, to file appropriate charges thereon.”

There was no indication that Philippines health officials knew of any risks when they administered the vaccination.

However, the WHO said in a July 2016 research paper that “vaccination may be ineffective or may theoretically even increase the future risk of hospitalized or severe dengue illness in those who are seronegative at the time of first vaccination regardless of age.”

Singapore’s Health Sciences Authority said last week that it flagged risks when Dengvaxia was approved there in October 2016, and was working with Sanofi to strengthen risk warnings on the drug’s packaging.

According to Sanofi in Manila, 19 licenses were granted for Dengvaxia, and it was launched in 11 countries, two of which — the Philippines and Brazil — had public vaccination programs.

“A SHAMELESS SCAM”

A spokesman for Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte said on Sunday the government would hold to account those responsible for the program.

“We will leave no stone unturned in making those responsible for this shameless public health scam, which puts hundreds of thousands of young lives at risk, accountable,” spokesman Harry Roque said in a statement.

Former Health Secretary Janette Garin, who implemented the program under the administration of then-President Benigno Aquino, said she welcomed the investigation.

“In the event that there will be authorities who will point culpability to me, I am ready to face the consequences,” she told ANC TV. “We implemented it in accordance with WHO guidance and recommendations.”

Roque said there had been no reported case of “severe dengue infection” since the vaccine was administered and urged the public “not to spread information that may cause undue alarm”. — Reuters


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