MANILA, Philippines — You’re the President. And as the country’s most powerful person, you are tasked to solve what ails your nation — poverty, hunger, homelessness, unemployment, diseases, and a myriad of other life-and-death-related problems.
But there’s one without solution — a potentially fatal disease without specific cure afflicting a growing number of Filipinos. Though you have been vested with vast presidential powers, these are useless because you have no magic wand to swish the illness away.
And then years after and months before you end your presidency, the unthinkable happened — a breakthrough — there is now a wonder drug that will prevent the dreaded disease from spreading, from killing many of your poor countrymen, who have no other treasure on Earth but their God-given lives.
What then will you do as father of your nation? Will you say yes to the supposed panacea? Will you buy the cure or still think twice and then say, maybe later, or no?
This was how former President Benigno Aquino III described the situation he was in when he was told by officials of Sanofi Pasteur in December 2015 that the French pharmaceutical giant had finally perfected its anti-dengue vaccine after 20 years of tests and research and that Dengvaxia could already be produced for mass use.
After he was thrilled by the breakthrough and was assured by Sanofi that Dengvaxia was safe, Aquino, through the Department of Health, decided to purchase the vaccine and immediately implement the government’s anti-dengue vaccination program among school children in the National Capital Region, Central Luzon, Southern Tagalog, and parts of Central Visayas.
Can you now decide on something that has not yet happened?
He said it was impossible to predict what Sanofi would say in the future — that those who received Dengvaxia shots and then get sick with the mosquito-borne disease for the first time could suffer from severe dengue.
“P’wede ba tayong magdesisyon na madidiskubre five years, 10 years from now? Sino kaya ang magsa-succeed sa atin ‘non? Baka ‘yong dating maganda, ngayon pangit na…Dati nga ‘yong aspirin puro plus, walang minus. O ngayon may minus na,” Aquino told reporters on Thursday after he testified at the joint hearing by the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee and the Senate Health Committee on the Dengvaxia controversy.
[Can we decide on something that will be discovered five or 10 years later from now? Who will succeed among us doing that? Maybe what was beautiful then is ugly now…Before, everything about aspirin was a plus, there was no minus. But now, there’s already a minus.]
Aquino also likened the situation to a patient blaming the doctor on why he failed to see that a supposed cure or medication would have negative side effects 10 years later.
“Ibig sabihin ba no’ng sinabi sa’yo ng doktor mo ‘yon no’ng araw, ang labo mo naman dok, hindi mo naisip na 10 years from now di pala puro plus ‘yan.”
“Pinagtiwalaan natin ‘yong mga eksperto na nag-aral nito. At sa panahong ‘yon, walang ipinakitang ganitong potential na baka magkaroon ng hazard [We trusted the experts who studied this. And at that time, the product did not show that there could be hazard potential],” he added.
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t
Also, Aquino felt that he was put in a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation.
He said that if Sanofi did not find any health risks in using Dengvaxia but he decided not to procure the vaccine, he might also be blamed for not doing anything to address the dengue problem despite the availability of the cure.
“Pag hindi natin ginamit at hindi lumabas itong Sanofi na nagbago ng kanilang pahayag, hindi kaya may mga nagtatanong na sa akin ngayon, ‘Oy, ang anak ko na-dengue na-confine ng ganito, ang hirap makahanap ng dugo sa gano’n, bakit hindi mo ginamit yan?'” said the former chief executive.
‘Move to address dengue was part of my goal to leave you a country better than what I’ve found’
He stressed that he made the right decision to use Dengvaxia in the government’s vaccination program because in 2015, Sanofi experts assured the product’s safety.
“In a sense, parang papipiliin ka do’n sa dalawa, parang mas tama naman yata ‘yong no’ng panahon na dinesisyunan namin ‘to, paniwala namin, sabi ng mga eksperto, effective ‘to na solusyon o tugon sa dengue,” Aquino said.
The former President said among those that he had promised the Filipinos when he was still the nation’s top leader was “I will leave you a country better than what I’ve found.”
“(Y)ou can see in a lot of my speeches, when I talk about my successor, one of the tests if I did well or not is if I left him or her with less problems than what I’ve found.”
And while his decision to use Dengvaxia in the government’s anti-dengue drive is now being investigated and assailed, Aquino still thinks that his move was consistent with his goal of making the Philippines better than what it was when he started his presidency.
“I think this is one of the efforts to achieve that. ‘Yong problema natin taon-taon sa dengue, sana hindi na parami ang problema, may asenso na na nangyari [Our yearly problem with dengue, we hope that the problem will not get worse, that progress happened],” he said.