MANILA, Philippines — Tapped by former Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre I to aid Dengvaxia victims in late 2017, Public Attorney’s Office chief Persida Acosta has since become the face of those allegedly affected by the controversial anti-dengue vaccine.
Her office’s forensics team—led by Erwin Erfe—performed its own autopsies on vaccinated children and concluded that Dengvaxia is directly linked to the deaths of at least 105 individuals despite no solid evidence. PAO is an agency that provides free legal assistance to the poor.
But an expert panel from the University of the Philippines-Philippine General Hospital in February last year found that the deaths of 14 children inoculated with Dengvaxia were “totally not related to the vaccine” except for two cases, which may have been because of vaccine failure.
Despite this, PAO insisted that its team has seen a “pattern” in autopsies.
Acosta, who in the past had shed tears in television interviews and spoken in high pitch whenever accusing opponents, has been accused of grandstanding the Dengvaxia crisis and has been blamed for putting the country’s immunization programs at risk.
Last December, Doctors for Truth and Welfare, led by former Health chief Esperanza Cabral, called Acosta and PAO forensics head Erwin Erfe “unqualified but noisy people who are largely responsible for the fall of vaccine confidence in the country.”
In a statement last week, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III stressed that Acosta’s “baseless” statements have eroded the agency’s reputation and affected trust in vaccines.
More than a year after the controversy that tainted the government’s immunization programs, Dengvaxia has been discredited and pulled from shelves in the Philippines. But the issue has also cast doubt on other vaccines that could protect individuals from life-threatening diseases.
A 2018 study of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine noted that the country’s “highly-politicized response” to the reported risks posed by Dengvaxia has eroded overall public trust in immunization.
The research, which involved 1,500 participants, found that the respondents who expressed confidence in vaccines declined to 32 percent last year from 93 percent in 2015.
“Kung nagkaroon tayo ng duda o problema sa bakunang ito (Dengvaxia), hindi po dapat ‘yung ibang bakuna. Napakarami nating bakuna na magpoprotekta sa anak niyo sa polio, diptheria, sa tigdas, tetanus. Mga tried and tested itong mga ito at kailangan maibigay natin ito sa ating mga anak,” DOH Undersecretary Enrique Domingo said as early as February 2017.
(If we have doubts or problems with [Dengvaxia], it shouldn’t carry over to other vaccines. There are so many vaccines that protect children from polio, diphtheria, measles, tetanus. These are tried and tested and must be given to our children)
Duque, in his statement last week, said the PAO chief’s remarks have contributed to a “decline in vaccine confidence and a rise in cases of measles and other vaccine preventable diseases.”
Data from the Department of Health showed that there was a 374-percent rise in the reported measles cases in the Philippines last year.
The reported cases of combined measles and rubella in 2018 ballooned to 18,026 in 2018 from only 3,804 in 2017.
Last year, the agency posted vaccine coverage of 40 percent, far from the target vaccination rate of 90 percent.