April 23, 2018, 12:35 am
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Health and politics

AS the two Senate committees’ public hearings on Dengvaxia vaccine for dengue proceeds in earnest, past and present officials of the Department of Health (DOH) have pointed to “politics” as one of the causes of this health fiasco.

Former health secretary Paulynn Ubial said she would have wanted to stop the dengue vaccination program as early as August, 2016 because she had unanswered questions on the way the program was administered. Among her reasons is that a new vaccine should be tried first on 20,000 to 40,000 people over a trial period of 20 years before using it to vaccinate over a million people, mostly children.

Ubial also wanted to observe the unwritten rule in the department not to introduce new vaccines during an election year “because no matter how good the vaccine is... it will be tainted as a hidden agenda of somebody.”

Secretary Ubial said it was difficult for her to implement the program but she had no other choice because people in Congress (read: politicians) had told her that if she stopped the program she could go to jail for not honoring the contract.

Ubial said, “I wanted to stop the next delivery in August 2016 and January 2017. I wanted to stop that to save Filipinos 2 billion pesos.”

The ex-health secretary then was undergoing the vetting process in the Commission on Appointments and thus was under the mercy of senators and congressmen. Her appointment was finally rejected.

She said, “If you mix politics and health, it’s really a disaster.”

Adding to the confusion is the statement of a health undersecretary who belonged to the formulary committee that decides which medicines and vaccines should be used in the Philippines, saying a “higher committee” (referring to the Department of Budget and Management) had already made a “political decision” to release the money for the controversial purchase.

The appearance of former President Benigno Aquino III before the Senate committees only reiterated that his administration’s decision to implement the program was made in good faith and backed by expert opinion from various international bodies, including the World Health Organization.

This is the presumption of regularity that President Duterte was talking about, as he seemingly absolved former officials of responsibility over the dengue vaccine fiasco, even as he called for the continued thorough investigation on the problem.

Perhaps this investigation can lead to concrete legislation that might be useful in the future -- the need to have an independent Food and Drug Administration (FDA) separate from the DOH and somewhat shielded from politics.
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