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On the Dengvaxia debacle, Bro. Luistro betrayed his flock

BRO. Armin Luistro, the previous regime’s education secretary, is as much to blame as President Aquino and his health secretary, Janette Garin, for risking the health and even lives of over 800,000 Grade 4 pupils inoculated with the faulty Dengvaxia anti-dengue vaccine. Its manufacturer Sanofi itself last month admitted that its product could worsen those who had never been ill with dengue before.

While embracing the faulty Dengvaxia, Luistro in 2015 blocked a vaccination program to counter a much deadlier disease in the country, cervical cancer, which kills much more Filipinos than dengue.

On March 28, 2016, Luistro issued Memorandum No. 50, ordering that Dengvaxia be administered to “all Grade 4 learners, nine years old and above, currently enrolled in public elementary schools in the National Capital Region, Region III, and IV-A (Calabarzon).”

“Regional directors, school division superintendents, and other school officials are enjoined to provide full support in the conduct” of the mass vaccination program, the memo read.

The Department of Health (DoH) has no authority to order the education department to allow any kind of vaccination of the public-school students it supervises. It is the education secretary’s sole prerogative.

If Luistro had not ordered his department to undertake the Dengvaxia vaccination program, Garin would have had to rely on community health centers to implement it, which in the past had been extremely slow in undertaking such mass vaccination. Some 800,000 schoolchildren would not have been vaccinated so swiftly, probably just 80,000 and she and Aquino would not be able to justify to the public why 1 million doses of Dengvaxia were ordered costing P3 billion.

The trio responsible for the vaccine fiasco, although one could have committed another wrongdoing, blocking a program to fight cervical cancer.

A new administration – with a new health secretary – with no pecuniary interest in Dengvaxia that cost billions of pesos, would have suspended the program that was so rushed that it reeked, at best, of criminal negligence.

Using the religious images Luistro would be familiar with, he betrayed his flock, the students under his care as education secretary.

Astonishing support
Two things make Luistro’s support of the Dengvaxia program quite astonishing.

First, before joining government, he had been president for four years of the De La Salle University, which has a College of Medicine. This college had been doing research on dengue for many years, and was even awarded P20 million in 2014 by the science and technology department for such studies.

Did Luistro even bother to call his former colleagues to give him a memo on Dengvaxia’s safety and efficacy? No. He was apparently told by Aquino to implement the Dengvaxia program, and he said, “as soon as possible, sir.”

More importantly, Luistro before had demonstrated he could just ignore any of the health department’s vaccination program if he had questions on it.

In 2015, he blocked that department’s mass vaccination program, also for Grade4 schoolchildren in the country’s 20 poorest provinces to inoculate them against the human papilloma virus (HPV) which has been scientifically proven to cause cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancer in women and anal cancer and testicular warts in men. (Cervical cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths here and in the world. In the Philippines, more than 6,000 new cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed every year. HPV infection causes more than 99 percent of cervical cancer cases among women.)

The health department eventually abandoned its efforts to get Luistro to authorize its anti-HPV program. It had to rely on the health centers under the local government units, so that to this day less than 50,000 schoolchildren have been vaccinated against the virus.

Fortunately, Luistro was no longer education secretary when President Duterte’s first health secretary, Paulynn Ubial, launched in August a school-based mass anti-HPV vaccination program targeting 700,000 nine-year-old girls in 47 provinces, with Education Secretary Leonor Briones’ enthusiastic support.

Luistro didn’t even bother to explain why he blocked the anti-HPV program. However, columnist Rina Jimenez-David reported in August 2015 that Luistro in a phone conversation had told her: “I did not rule out the HPV vaccine program. I merely asked for more time to study it.” But Luistro never completed his “study” so that the health department just gave up on trying to convince him, and shelved the entire program entirely.

If Aquino was determined to improve the health of Filipinos, as he justified his rush to implement his Dengvaxia plot, then why didn’t he order Luistro to support the program against cervical cancer, which has been far more deadly than dengue?

David also reported that Luistro told her: “I talked with Secretary Garin and asked her if we could have more time to discuss the logistics and the science behind the program.”

His comment is astonishing, if placed in the context of his total support for Dengvaxia, which he obviously didn’t bother to study “the science” behind it.

In 2015, the anti-HPV vaccines (Gardasil and Cervarix) had been commercially available for nine years, produced by two competing big pharmaceutical firms, Merck and GlaxoSmithKline. They were approved and even recommended by the World Health Organization for routine mass vaccination. Over 100 countries use the anti-HPV vaccines.

This is in sharp contrast to Dengvaxia, which became commercially available only in 2015 and hadn’t been recommended by the WHO for mass vaccination programs. It was used by only one country in a mass vaccination program– Brazil – when Aquino ordered P3 billion worth of the vaccine.

In 2016, just a bit more than 1 million dosages of Dengvaxia had been injected into people, 300,000 in Brazil and 800,000 in the Philippines – in contrast to the 100 million doses of the anti-HPV administered all over the world.

Moralistic beliefs
The anti-HPV vaccines had been approved in early 2015 by both our Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Formulary Executive Council when Luistro claimed that he would still need to study whether it was safe.

In contrast, the FDA was rushed—and pressured—to approve Dengvaxia three weeks after Aquino met in December 2015 with its manufacturer’s executives. The FEC only gave it a one-year approval, and required that it be used only in a phased manner.

This purported man of God, who’s back as president of De La Salle University, obviously was lying on the reason why he blocked the anti-HPV vaccination program.

As columnist David and several others have disclosed, the real reason for his opposition—which should teach government never, never to appoint a cleric to a key position—is his moralistic belief that vaccinating women against HPV, which is transmitted mostly through sex, will make them promiscuous. It would also, in Luistro’s mind, encourage homosexuality as HPV is also transmitted through anal sex.

Luistro should be condemned not only for the Dengvaxia fiasco but for the many thousands of deaths in the next few years that could have been prevented if he had junked his moralistic ideas on sex and homosexuality, and allowed mass vaccination with the anti-HPV vaccines.

Deaths due to dengue are about 1,000 yearly; those due to cervical cancer are more than 2,000. Worse, of course, is that dengue is a usually self-limiting illness, and most of the time can be overcome with proper medical care for replacement of the body’s fluids. Cervical cancer on the other hand is mostly a death sentence.

This is the kind of Yellow cleric that Aquino had unleashed on the country.