PAO forensic consultant finds pattern in 5 severe dengue deaths

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 10) — What do the first five children who  died after they were vaccinated with Dengvaxia have in common?

All suffered from enlargement of organs and severe bleeding in the brain, lungs, liver, kidneys, spleen, and intestines, according to the Public Attorneys' Office (PAO).

PAO Forensic Laboratory Director Dr. Erwin Erfe on Wednesday said signs and symptoms - as well as the death - occurred within six months after the last Dengvaxia injection.

"Actually very similar 'yung findings namin to severe dengue. Hindi lang namin alam [We just don't know] at this time if that is directly caused by Dengvaxia," Erfe told CNN Philippines.

Erfe added that it's upon the victim's family to request the autopsy. He said they receive autopsy requests for Dengvaxia-administered dengue victims every day.

However, Erfe said the findings are still inconclusive.

"Hindi naman siya conclusive pero nali-link lang siya with Dengvaxia because of the proximity of the timeline between their death and being given Dengvaxia, yun lang," he said.

[Translation: It's not conclusive but we are linking it to Dengvaxia because of the proximity of the timeline between their death and being given Dengvaxia, that's it.]

Meanwhile, the Philippine General Hospital (PGH) is also conducting a separate autopsy on 14 other bodies to look for similarities in their deaths. The Health Department tapped PGH to conduct the autopsies.

In December, the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption and PAO assisted families of children who allegedly died due to the vaccine to come forward and seek accountability.

One of them was 10-year-old Anjielica Pestilos, who was vaccinated on September 13, 2017 and died in December.

Pestilos' death certificate said she died of "systemic lupus" but Erfe said photos taken from the child's clinical abstract showed severe hemorrhagic dengue.

PAO Chief Persida Rueda-Acosta in December said they are planning to file criminal, civil, and administrative complaints against those behind the program, but added she is holding off the names to be charged as they expect more families to come forward.

READ: Families claim their children died due to Dengvaxia

Health secretaries welcome investigation

Both former and incumbent Health secretaries Janet Garin and Francisco Duque III welcomed the investigation.

They, however, encouraged a deeper investigation into the cases, since some symptoms can also be linked to other diseases.

"The histopathological findings had to be linked to the clinical findings to come up with a more definitive diagnosis. The challenge here is especially in the clinical chart, there are co-morbidities or there are other conditions that have been, other illness that have been diagnosed alongside the dengue shock syndrome," Duque said.

Garin said she wants to know whether the bodies tested positive for dengue virus.

"Marami yan eh. Each symptom can usually be associated with a lot of diseases. Hindi rin kasi ako privy to the documents, hindi ko alam if a dengue test was done, so the presence of the dengue virus in the patient will signify a recent infection," Garin said.

[Translation: There are a lot of symptoms, and each can usually be associated with a lot of diseases. I'm not privy to the documents, I don't know if a dengue test was done, so the presence of the dengue virus in the patient will signify a recent infection.]

Duque encouraged Erfe to compare findings with health experts working on the case, so they can validate and come up with a definitive and credible diagnosis.

The Dengvaxia controversy

The controversial dengue vaccine raised alarms after its maker, French pharmaceutical company Sanofi, warned those who have not been exposed to dengue virus but have been vaccinated may experience "severe dengue."

READ: Drug firm warns of 'severe disease' from dengue vaccine for people with no prior infection

The announcement prompted the Health Department to suspend the program, and the Food and Drug Administration to stop the vaccine's sale and distribution.

Dengvaxia was administered to over 800,000 Filipino students in a school-based government immunization program last April 2016.

Both houses of the Congress conducted separate probes, with the Senate questioning the past administration, including former President Benigno Aquino III and former Health chief Janette Garin.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday also asked the three agencies involved in the dengue vaccine program - the Health, Education, and Interior Departments - to comment on the petition filed by women's group Gabriela.

The group asked the High Court to compel the three departments to provide long-term, free consultations and treatment to all children administered with Dengvaxia in 2016.