Ex-Health chief: PAO partly to blame for Dengvaxia 'mass hysteria'

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 6) — The Public Attorney's Office (PAO) is partly to blame for the "mass hysteria" over the dengue vaccine controversy, affecting other vaccination programs, a former health official said.

"Nagkaroon na ng panic reaction, ng mass hysteria… at ito ay lumipat na hindi lang sa bakuna sa dengue, kung hindi sa bakuna ng ibang sakit na alam na alam nating kailangan nila ng bakuna katulad ng measles, ng polio, ng diphtheria," former Health Secretary Dr. Esperanza Cabral told CNN Philippines' "The Source" on Tuesday.

[Translation: There is now a panic reaction, mass hysteria, and this has translated to other vaccination programs which are necessary, like measles, polio, and diphtheria.]

Cabral, together with 400 other doctors, urged the Department of Justice (DOJ) to stop PAO from conducting autopsies on the deaths of children administered with Dengvaxia, and leave it instead to "more competent people."

"If you look at the function of government agencies, each of us has functions that we need to perform. We do not see there the PAO having the mandate to establish a team that is going to do the autopsies themselves," Cabral said.

PAO Chief Persida Acosta told CNN Philippines, they said they are conducting the autopsies upon the request of the families.

Acosta also denied causing panic, adding Cabral's statements only adds to the frustration of the people.

"Hindi PAO ang bumili at nagturok niyan," Acosta said. "Kasasalita ni Dra. Cabral lalong nagagalit tao dahil she wants to stop ng determination of truth na asked by parents," the PAO chief added.

[Translation: PAO neither purchased nor administered the vaccine. Cabral's statements flares up the people's anger because she wants to stop the truth, which is being asked by the parents.]

The PAO, under the DOJ, is conducting a separate probe on the deaths of the children vaccinated with Dengvaxia.

Acosta said they have availed of the services of pathologists at the Ospital ng Maynila Medical Center to examine tissue samples from the children.

Dr. Erwin Erfe, a lawyer and a certified forensic physician in the U.S., heads the PAO forensic laboratory. In early January, he told CNN Philippines the first five children he autopsied had enlarged organs and severe bleeding in the brain, lungs, liver, kidneys, spleen, and intestines.

However, he then said the findings were inconclusive, and cannot be related yet to Dengvaxia.

READ: PAO forensic consultant finds pattern in 5 severe dengue deaths

Cabral, however, said forensic pathologists should be the ones conducting the autopsies.

"'Yung pattern na sinasabi nila, pwedeng lumabas sa maski anong sakit. Hindi kinakailangan na dengue 'yung sakit para makakita yung enlargement na sinasabi nila. Sa baga, sa atay, sa utak," Cabral said. "Any kind of severe infection can produce that."

[Translation: The enlargement of the organs like the lungs, liver, and the brain, the pattern they are saying can also appear in other diseases. It does not have to be dengue.]

Cabral said tests conducted by forensic pathologists can take months, not like the ones conducted by the PAO.

"What these people do, they have the television crew inside the autopsy room. And right after they had cut the bodies up, not even after they have harvested the organs, they appeared on television with their hands bloody with their masks on, with their gowns on, to say that most likely, these patients died from Dengvaxia," Cabral said, referring to PAO.

Apart from PAO, the Health Department asked infectious disease experts from the University of the Philippines-Philippine General Hospital (UP-PGH) to investigate the deaths of 14 children vaccinated with Dengvaxia.

UP-PGH reviewed medical records of the children and announced on Friday only two may be related to vaccine failure.

READ: 2 deaths may be due to Dengvaxia failure - experts

The PAO refused to cooperate with UP-PGH due to "conflict of interest."

"UP pathologists are reportedly consultants of Sanofi or affiliated with Zuellig. Kapag may conflict of interest, magdududa ang mga tao [If there appears to be conflict of interest, the people may doubt the results]," Acosta said.

French pharmaceutical company Sanofi Pasteur formulated Dengvaxia, while Zuellig Pharma was the distributor of the vaccine in the Philippines.

In a Senate probe on Tuesday, PGH Dengue Investigative Task Force Head Dr. Juliet Sio-Aguilar said the team of experts tasked to probe deaths were strictly chosen, and are not affiliated with any vaccine company.

The controversial P3.5-billion school-based vaccination program kicked off in April 2016 and was halted in December 2017 after Sanofi Pasteur said the vaccine may cause severe dengue in children who have not had the infection prior to vaccination.

By then, more than 730,000 children from Central Luzon, Calabarzon, and Metro Manila have already been administered with Dengvaxia - about 10 percent of which have not had dengue yet.

Both houses of Congress, as well as the National Bureau of Investigation, are also investigating the dengue vaccination program.

READ: TIMELINE: The Dengvaxia controversy