Sat, 06 Jun 2020

Screengrab from the DOH Facebook page.

WITH THE continuing surge in the number of dengue cases, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III issued a national dengue epidemic alert on August 6. During the period from January to July 20 this year, the Department of Health (DOH) recorded 146,062 cases of dengue - 98% more than in 2018.

Even before the DOH announcement, the spike in dengue cases was alarming enough for some sectors to call for the use of the banned Dengvaxia vaccine. On July 31, former Health Secretary and now Iloilo Rep. Janette Garin renewed her call for its use. The call was echoed by a doctors' group on August 1 as some lawmakers and other concerned groups opposed the idea. Malacanang said it is open to the recommendation if health experts say "there is benefit in using Dengvaxia against dengue."

Dengvaxia's certificate of product registration was permanently revoked last February by the Food and Drug Administration, effectively banning its importation, sale and distribution in the country.

Alongside updates on the country's dengue situation, the media coverage recorded the arguments made over the lifting of the ban on Dengvaxia, citing the same sources who had already weighed in on the issue in 2018. News reports offered nothing new and little useful information.

CMFR monitored the reports on the subject from the leading Manila broadsheets (the Manila Bulletin, the Philippine Daily Inquirer and The Philippine Star); the primetime newscasts (ABS-CBN 2's TV Patrol, CNN Philippines' News Night, GMA-7's 24 Oras and TV5's Aksyon); as well as selected online news sites from August 1 to 7.

Tracking the development

Media reports recalled the controversy over the vaccine's safety and its effectiveness against dengue. As in 2017 when some media organizations and politicians stoked fears that it could even be harmful, the call to allow its use against the epidemic drew mixed reactions from various groups.

The coverage tracked the statistics, noting the rising incidence of the disease and keeping count of fatalities. Emphasizing the gravity of the situation, reports described the difficulties experienced as the increasing numbers of patients strained the resources and facilities of hospitals and clinics.

New perspective

Given Dengvaxia's history in the Philippines and the complexity of the circumstances surrounding the issue, health experts are not likely to reconcile their differing views soon on the use of the vaccine by doctors in private practice or through a government immunization program.

If the local debate provides nothing new about the issue, media should expand the scope of the discussion. Media reported the separate statements of Duque and Garin referring to countries which have used Dengvaxia, including Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and Brazil.

But journalists have yet to follow up on these leads and do the necessary research in the use of the vaccine in different countries.

Surely there are lessons to be learned from their experience. Reports on this topic could check out the circumstances in the different countries that are similar to or different from the Philippines; noting the adjustments made in the use of Dengvaxia. It is something that the health authorities should do to shape its own immunization policy against dengue or any other disease.

The failure of policy makers on this issue should not be compounded by media fixating on pointless political debate.

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