MANILA — After an outbreak of measles was declared in five regions, President Rodrigo R. Duterte ordered the health department to spearhead a “vigorous” campaign to promote immunization in the country, Malacañang said on Thursday.
Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said this was among the President’s orders during the 34th Cabinet meeting held in Malacañan Palace on Wednesday night.
Panelo acknowledged that parents’ fears over the controversial anti-dengue vaccine, Dengvaxia, must have eroded public’s trust in vaccines.
“The President ordered a vigorous campaign to promote the complete immunization for children. I think one of the reasons why we have an outbreak of measles is because of the lack of immunization on the part of children,” Panelo said in a Palace briefing.
“I think that the Secretary (Francisco Duque III) was saying that the—some of our people are reluctant to undergo immunization by reason of the Dengvaxia scandal,” he added.
Panelo said the President was “saddened” by the news that the outbreak of measles was declared in Metro Manila, Central Luzon, Calabarzon, Western Visayas, and Central Visayas and caused the deaths of hundreds of children.
“Of course, he was saddened. You know the President is always affected by any negative outcome that relates to children — he said, that’s why he said it should be addressed immediately,” Panelo said.
Duterte himself urged parents not to let the Dengvaxia scare stop them from getting their children immunized in an event at Malabon City on January 29.
As part of efforts to encourage immunization among children, Panelo said that the DOH will work with the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) in informing the public about the benefits of vaccines and how DOH findings show that Dengvaxia may not cause the deaths of children after all.
“According to Secretary Duque, their findings show that it’s not Dengvaxia, it’s more on pneumonia, heart disease, TB (tuberculosis) — the cause of death of all these children,” Panelo said.
“You cannot blame parents for believing that that (Dengvaxia) is the cause of their children’s deaths. That’s why Secretary Duque is right, we need a massive information campaign to tell them that it’s not true,” he added.
In 2018, findings from the University of the Philippines-Philippine General Hospital showed that only three of the 14 children who died after being administered with Dengvaxia contracted dengue.
Not blaming Acosta
While Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) chief Persida Acosta has been blamed by critics for allegedly influencing general perception about immunization, Panelo said the executive understood where she was coming from.
Acosta, who provides legal counsel to parents who claimed that Dengvaxia resulted into deaths of children administered by the vaccine, has been filing cases against several former and incumbent government officials before the Department of Justice.
“Well, you know the PAO Chief as a lawyer is depending or pursuing the theory that favors the clients. In other words, she’s pursuing an advocacy, an impassioned one. So I cannot blame her for that,” Panelo said.
“As far as she’s concerned, she’s just doing her job. Protecting the parents of those, what she perceived to be, dying by reason of Dengvaxia,” he added.
Panelo said he believed Acosta is “responsible enough” to know if her action would result into discouraging parents from having their children immunized.
“But even if we do that, as lawyers, we are confronted with realities that our position may affect and impact negatively on the general public. So it’s her call. We’ll leave it to her,” Panelo said.
“She feels that her advocacy has affected the people into not believing on immunization including immunization from other illnesses, then she does something about it,” he added.
Duque vs. Acosta
Panelo also said that Duque has complained about how Acosta has been impleading him in several cases, which might have made people hesitant about immunization.
“Nobody blamed anybody there. But Secretary Duque was complaining about how the PAO had impleaded him in several cases and that is one of the reasons why people are hesitant, because people lost their trust on immunization, because of the Dengvaxia,” Panelo said.
“He (Duque) felt that he has been unnecessarily and baselessly charged because he had nothing to do with the implementation of Dengvaxia in the first place, he came in too late in the day,” he added.
The DOJ earlier said that a resolution on the cases filed against Duque and other incumbent officials in relation to the anti-dengue vaccine will be released within the month.
Panelo said that should the DOJ indict Duque and other incumbent officials the executive will not interfere, insisting that it was not the President’s style to micro-manage.
“The President, one, does not interfere or intrude into the department’s authority and responsibility. DOJ has the duty to determine whether or not there is probable cause for any case filed before it against anybody and its job regardless of who are involved,” Panelo said.
Duque has repeatedly said that he only inherited the Dengvaxia problem from the previous administration but immediately addressed the issue since assuming office in November 2017.
Earlier, two panels of the House of Representatives recommended the filing of graft charges against former President Benigno Aquino III and some former officials over the Dengvaxia mess.
Panelo, however, reiterated that the executive will refer it to the findings of Congress and let the law take its course.
“Our position is we will not interfere with the findings of the House being a separate independent branch. We will defer it to it,” Panelo said.
He also emphasized that the House committee report recommending charges against Aquino and other former officials is for technical malversation charges.
The committee report noted that the 2015 General Appropriations Act did not appropriate funds for the acquisition of the dengue vaccine in the DOH budget. (PNA)