Former Health Secretary: Vaccines should not be introduced during elections

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, December 19) — It was improper for any vaccination program to have taken place during the election season, former Health Secretary Paulyn Ubial said Tuesday.

Ubial revealed that as Department of Health (DOH) assistant secretary, she warned then-Secretary Garin and the Expanded Program on Immunization (EPI) about pushing through with the dengue immunization program using Dengvaxia.

"I told Secretary Garin and the EPI people... that we never introduce a new vaccine during election year," Ubial told CNN Philippines' The Source. The Dengvaxia immunization program kicked off in April 2016, a month before the presidential elections.

Previous health secretaries Alfredo Bengzon and Juan Flavier both set the guidelines, she said. Bengzon served as health chief from from 1986 to 1992, and Flavier from 1992 to 1995.

"During the time of Sec. Bengzon, he ran for Senate, he actually instructed us... not to start the national immunization days... With Sec. Flavier, that was also the same thing he instructed us," said Ubial.

"Because, delicadeza. You're running for office, then you start a program," she added.

Bengzon fell short of landing a spot at the Senate, while Flavier was a senator from 1995 to 2004.

Ubial said the impending elections was only one of the reasons she was uncomfortable with the school-based immunization program.

"Even if this vaccine was really good, no side effects... [if] it was a perfect vaccine; it will be tainted. The program will be questioned, why did you introduce it at this particular time?" she said.

The other reasons for her opposition to the program was because it was new and "off the drawing board." She named social preparation and the division of the medical world over Dengvaxia as other factors.

"For a new vaccine, you need one to two years because people have to understand that no vaccine is perfect. There are side effects. There are advantages and disadvantages and they have to take that into consideration," said Ubial.

"The medical and scientific world was divided on this vaccine. So I told myself, we have to really consult them, vet with them because really we have to hear all sides," she added.

The Health Department is in hot water after the P3.5 billion purchase of Dengvaxia, which was administered to over 800,000 students. The vaccine was later linked to potentially severe dengue cases among those who had not contracted the disease before.

Under her term, Ubial formed a review committee to look into the P3.5 billion purchase. It found that the transaction was made "within bounds" of DOH rules.

However, she maintained, "It might not be illegal, but it's unethical."

'Telling the truth'

Ubial also testified at the Senate hearing on the Dengvaxia controversy, saying she was pressured to continue the program.

Among the lawmakers whom she felt pressure from were Cebu 3rd District Representative Gwen Garcia and Iloilo 1st District Representative Oscar Garin Jr., the then-Health Secretary Garin's husband.

Related: Ex-DOH Sec. Ubial: Janette Garin's husband asked me to buy more Dengvaxia

Ubial added that her family was afraid because she had mentioned the names of representatives Garcia and Garin.

"These are powerful, well-positioned families. I'm nobody. I'm penniless and now I'm jobless... but I spoke the truth," Ubial said.

"I think at this point in time, history will just judge us — who made the wrong decisions, and who told the truth," she added.

Ubial was appointed Health Secretary by President Rodrigo Duterte when he assumed office in July 2016. However she stepped down from the post in October 2017 after she failed to get the nod of the Commission on Appointments.