Confusion, blame game fuel Philippines’ Dengvaxia vaccine scandal

Relatives display pictures of children, who supposedly died after getting injected with the anti-dengue fever vaccine Dengvaxia, during a Senate investigation about the vaccine in Manila. (AFP)
Updated 17 April 2018
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Confusion, blame game fuel Philippines’ Dengvaxia vaccine scandal

  • Several measles outbreaks have struck the nation, claiming at least 13 lives, since the controversy began
  • Certainty about the children’s cause of death may remain clouded because post-mortem diagnosis of dengue can be a tricky process

IMUS, Philippines: Melinda Colite shakes with rage as she clutches a photo of her grandson, who she says died after getting the anti-dengue fever vaccine at the heart of a bitter scandal in the Philippines.
While Dengvaxia’s maker Sanofi has said unequivocally that its world-first vaccination is safe, Philippine authorities disagree publicly over whether it could have contributed to children’s deaths.
The resulting confusion has prompted a dangerous plunge in vaccination rates in the Philippines for other diseases.
It has also added to a swirling political battle, fanned by bloggers who back President Rodrigo Duterte and have an audience of millions of Facebook followers.
“The blame game has taken over the main issue,” Ronald Mendoza, dean of the Ateneo de Manila University’s School of Government, said. “It may be doing damage to public health rather than protecting it.”
Health authorities have said child vaccination rates against illnesses like measles have dropped by as much as 25 percentage points over the previous year as public anger and mistrust has grown in the Dengvaxia case.
Several measles outbreaks have struck the nation, claiming at least 13 lives, since the controversy began.
The trouble started last year, shortly after the Philippines gave Dengvaxia to some 837,000 students as part of a public immunization campaign.
Sanofi hailed the vaccine as a breakthrough in combating dengue, which kills hundreds in the Philippines every year, mostly children.
But the company set off a panic when in November it said a new analysis showed the vaccine could lead to more severe symptoms for people who had not previously been infected with dengue.
It prompted Manila to halt the campaign and left hundreds of thousands of terrified parents wondering if their children were at risk.
Sanofi has repeatedly said the vaccine is safe, noting in a March statement: “No causal-related deaths were reported in 15 countries after clinical trials conducted for more than a decade with 40,000 subjects involved.”
“There continues to be no evidence that any deaths have been causally linked to our vaccine,” it added.
But that has not stopped allegations emerging of vaccinated children dying of super-charged cases of dengue after getting Dengvaxia.
“It could not have been anything else. He started complaining of frequent body aches after his third injection,” Melinda Colite, 55, said of her 12-year-old grandson Zandro.
As of last week, 65 deaths have been reported to authorities and are under investigation, the health department says.
Different branches of the Philippine government have disagreed openly about potential risks of the vaccine, leading to confusion for the public.
“We cannot conclude at this point that Dengvaxia directly caused the deaths,” Health Secretary Francisco Duque told lawmakers in February, referring to the cases of 14 children who received the vaccine.
However, after additional potential cases emerged, the government assigned its legal service that represents the poor, the Public Attorney’s Office, to take up the matter.
Its chief lawyer, Persida Acosta, told lawmakers in February: “They (death certificates) said they were (killed by) acute respiratory arrest, encephalitis, appendicitis, septic shock. All of those are mimics of severe dengue.”
Certainty about the children’s cause of death may remain clouded because post-mortem diagnosis of dengue can be a tricky process.
The most accurate and widely used way of testing, called RT-PCR, relies on genetic material that degrades quickly after a person dies, especially in warm climates like the Philippines, virus expert Benjamin Neuman said.
“The challenge of determining a cause of death by RT-PCR can swiftly move from difficult to impossible,” he added.
It is also unclear if this type of testing has been used in the cases under investigation.
Supporters of the president have been eager to assign blame for the Dengvaxia scandal to his predecessor, Benigno Aquino, who has criticized Duterte’s deadly anti-drug crackdown.
Though the vaccination campaign was approved and launched under Aquino’s administration, it continued for a time under Duterte.
Well-known blogs have posted entries calling for Aquino to be jailed and questioned whether the vaccine is a “time bomb.”
Ruth Jaime, whose 12-year-old grandson Alexzander died due to a blood infection months after his last dose of Dengvaxia, says the situation is clear for her.
“Of course, no one will admit what caused his death,” said the fishmonger in her home west of Manila.
“If you had a healthy child and he dies after getting an injection would you not attribute his death to that?”


New sex abuse allegations levied against prominent cardinal

In this Sept. 23, 2015 file photo, Pope Francis reaches out to hug Cardinal Archbishop emeritus Theodore McCarrick after the Midday Prayer of the Divine with more than 300 US Bishops at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington. (AP)
Updated 21 July 2018
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New sex abuse allegations levied against prominent cardinal

  • The church announced June 20 that allegations were found to be credible
  • McCarrick served as archbishop of Washington from 2001-2006 and archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, for 15 years before that

RICHMOND, Virginia: A Virginia man said Friday he was sexually abused for about two decades by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a prominent Roman Catholic leader who was removed from public ministry last month over separate child abuse allegations.
The man, who agreed to be identified only by his first name, James, told The Associated Press he recently filed a police report detailing the abuse with the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office. James, who first spoke publicly with The New York Times for a story published Thursday, said the abuse began when he was a child and continued into adulthood.
McCarrick was a close family friend, James said. The 88-year-old retired archbishop of Washington, D.C., is one of the highest-ranking US church officials accused in a sexual abuse scandal that has seen thousands of priests implicated.
“I was the first guy he baptized,” James said. “I was his little boy. I was his special kid. I was the kid he always sought out.”
McCarrick, who did not immediately respond to an interview request from AP, has denied the abuse allegations that led to his removal last month by Pope Francis. The church announced June 20 that allegations were found to be “credible” that McCarrick fondled an altar boy in New York more than 40 years ago.
In a statement issued at the time of his removal, McCarrick said, “While I have absolutely no recollection of this reported abuse, and believe in my innocence, I am sorry for the pain the person who brought the charges has gone through, as well as for the scandal such charges cause our people.”
Asked Friday about James’ statements, a longtime friend of McCarrick’s who didn’t want to be identified because she doesn’t officially serve as his spokeswoman said he hadn’t received formal notice of any new allegation but would follow the civil and church processes in place to investigate them.
James said he struggled for decades with immense shame and guilt over the abuse, which he said had started by at least age 11 and extended for about two decades into his 30s. He said the abuse included McCarrick exposing himself, forcing him to sleep in the same bed and touching him inappropriately.
He said he struggled with alcoholism, which broke up his marriage, and attempted suicide multiple times. He’s been sober since he was 33, he said.
James recounted confronting McCarrick as an adult, telling him he was going to go public with his allegations.
“You can’t do that,” James says McCarrick told him. “No one’s going to believe you. You’re a drunk. You’re an idiot. ... Do you know how important I am?“
James said he included in his police report the incidents he considers most “disgusting,” which he says took place in several different states.
James’ attorney, Patrick Noaker, provided AP with a document from the sheriff’s office confirming that a police report had been taken. A spokesman for the department declined to release a full copy of the report.
Noaker said he was told the report would be passed on to the jurisdictions where James says the crimes occurred. He said he expects the statute of limitations may have run out in some states but is hopeful that prosecutors in California may be able to pursue charges. That’s because statutes of limitation run differently when someone enters a state, commits a crime and then leaves, as James alleges McCarrick did in California, Noaker said.
James said he hoped to see McCarrick prosecuted and would like a public apology. But he also said he hoped his coming forward would make other victims of sex abuse feel less alone.
“I’ve never felt this good in a long, long time,” he said.
The Associated Press does not identify people who say they’re victims of sexual assault unless they grant permission. James asked to be identified only by his first name to protect the privacy of family members.
McCarrick served as archbishop of Washington from 2001-2006 and archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, for 15 years before that. As Washington archbishop, McCarrick was a major power broker in Vatican-US relations during the final years of the pontificate of St. John Paul II and the start of Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy.
His ties to Washington’s political elites proved crucial when Pope Francis tasked him with the delicate behind-the-scenes negotiations that helped lead to the 2014 US-Cuba thaw.
McCarrick was also well-known in Rome, serving on a host of Vatican congregations before he retired, including the Pontifical Council for Latin America. That post would have brought him in contact with Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis, who was made a cardinal in the same 2001 consistory as McCarrick.
In 2002, he led a delegation of US churchmen to Rome, at the height of the American sex abuse scandal, and vowed to pursue a “one strike and you’re out” policy that later became the US Catholic bishops’ norms for fighting abuse.
Chieko Noguchi, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Washington, said in an emailed statement that the archdiocese takes all allegations of abuse seriously and is committed to following its long-standing child protection policy.
She declined to make further comment on James’ allegations, “as this claim did not occur in the Archdiocese of Washington.”