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?”


UN Security Council to visit Myanmar and Bangladesh as it eyes action on Rohingya crisis

Updated 10 min 10 sec ago
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UN Security Council to visit Myanmar and Bangladesh as it eyes action on Rohingya crisis

UNITED NATIONS: The UN Security Council will pay a visit to Bangladesh and Myanmar beginning Saturday as it weighs next steps to address one of the world’s worst refugee crises, stemming from the forced exodus of Muslim Rohingya.
Myanmar has come under international scrutiny since a military campaign launched in August drove more than 700,000 Rohingya from their homes in northern Rakhine state and into crowded camps in Bangladesh.
The council is urging Myanmar to allow their safe return and take steps to end decades of discrimination that the Muslim minority has suffered in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
The visit kicks off in the camps of Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh where ambassadors will meet refugees, whose harrowing accounts of killings, rape and the torching of villages at the hands of Myanmar’s military and militias have been documented in UN human rights reports.
Led by Kuwait, Britain and Peru, the four-day visit is expected to include a trip by helicopter to Rakhine to allow ambassadors to tour villages affected by the violence, including Pan Taw Pyin and Shwe Zar.
The council will hold talks with Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been criticized for failing to speak out in defense of the Rohingya, and with Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Kuwait’s Ambassador Mansour Al-Otaibi said the visit was not about “naming and shaming” Myanmar, but that “the message will be very clear for them: the international community is following the situation and has great interest in resolving it.”
“We are coming to see how can we help, how can we push things forward,” he said, stressing that the current situation was “not acceptable.”
“700,000 people have fled their country and they cannot go back. It’s a humanitarian disaster.”
After months of deliberations, Myanmar finally agreed this month to allow the council to visit as the government rejected accusations from the United Nations and Western countries that the attacks against the Rohingya were ethnic cleansing.
Myanmar has said the military operation in Rakhine is aimed at rooting out extremists.
British Ambassador Karen Pierce said it was “incredibly important” for the council to see the situation on the ground as it considers “what needs to be done next to help Myanmar develop as a modern, political and economic entity.”
The United States and its European partners in the council have faced strong opposition to action on the Rohingya crisis from China, a supporter of Myanmar’s former ruling junta.
The council adopted a statement in November that called on Myanmar to rein in its military, but there has been no resolution, a stronger measure that China would likely block as one of the veto-wielding permanent members.
“This trip represents an opportunity for the council to press the reset button,” said Akshaya Kumar, UN deputy director for Human Rights Watch.
“They have taken almost no action,” she said.
“So if this trip is what is needed to spur them to actually respond to the gravity of an ethnic cleansing on their watch, then we’ll be waiting for a resolution when they return.”
The president of the International Red Cross, which is providing aid to those affected by the violence in Rakhine, said the Myanmar government is rebuilding villages and taking steps to allow the Rohingya to return.
“But what we see is that people don’t yet trust that this will give them safety and security,” said Peter Maurer.
“We are at the beginning of the such a confidence-building process. It’s a very long way to go,” Maurer told reporters.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Thursday announced the appointment of Christine Schraner Burgener, Switzerland’s ambassador to Germany, as his new special envoy to Myanmar, following a months-long search for an emissary.